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The Stories of American History 

Story of the New England Whalers 

Story of the American Merchant 

Captain Nathaniel Brown Palmer. 
Born August 8, 1799. Died June 21, 1877. 

Nathaniel Brown Palmer 

An Old-Time Sailor of the Sea 




All rights reserved 


Copyright, 1922, 

Set up and printed. Published March, 1922. 

Press of 

J. J. Little & Ives Company 

New York, U. S. A. 



While employed as a reporter on The Sun, of 
New York, thirty odd years ago, the writer saw 
in the January, 1884, issue of Harper^ s Magazine, 
an illustrated account of "The Old Packet and Clip- 
per Service." Records of swift passages, hero tales 
and statements of vast profits were mingled in it in 
a way that proved memorable. In fact, the whole 
story was so interesting that the magazine was pre- 
served and became the first item in a collection of 
books relating to the sea. 

Naturally this collection came to resemble the 
original article in that the most important feature 
was bibliographical; it came to demonstrate that a 
history of the sea, at least, is a series of biographies. 
Naturally, too, the records of some of the more 
active of the old master mariners were duplicated, 
more or less, in the various accounts — their work 
had attracted the attention of more than one writer. 
Accordingly, as the collection was read and reread, 
the names of certain captains became more and more 
familiar to the reader and then a time came when 
the name of one old captain came to mind whenever 
any true story of the sea was read. 

A few quotations from some of the sketches will 

vi Preface 

show how this came to pass : In the original account 
it was noted that when ships were named, during 
the clipper era, "the custom was to use the names 
of distinguished merchants or captains — the Houqua, 
the Samuel Russell, the N, B. Palmer,'* A copy of 
the North American Review ^ published in 1834, 
told how a Yankee sailor, in a sloop "but little rising 
forty tons," had discovered lands of continental 
proportions near the Antarctic Pole and had ex- 
plored the coast for many miles in spite of the hurri- 
cane squalls that prevail in that region and in spite 
of the ice floes which mill around and crash together 
there under the influence of currents as well as winds. 
The name of this young man was Nathaniel Brown 
Palmer, and the story quoted said that a Russian 
naval officer had named the coast thus explored 
Palmer Land. It appeared that the young explorer 
thus distinguished was the distinguished merchant 
or captain for whom a ship had been named later. 
A clipping from a Liverpool newspaper described 
briefly a race between twelve American packets and 
freighters plying between New York and Liverpool. 
The winner in this race was the W ashington, Cap- 
tain Holdredge. He arrived in seventeen days. The 
third in the race was the Columbus, Captain Palmer, 
who arrived a day later. The Nautical Magazine^ 
(Volume II), which was edited by John Willis 
Griffiths, a noted naval architect, made mention of 
Captain N. B. Palmer several times during 1855, 
and on one occasion coupled his name with that of 

Preface vii 

William H. Aspinwall, saying that the two were the 
originators of "the late clipper era." 

The impression made by these references was 
deepened by further reading. There were many 
notable men in the service of the American merchant 
marine during the period between the War of 1812 
and the Civil War, but, as the records indicated, 
Captain Palmer as an explorer, as a master mariner, 
and, more important still, as a designer of famous 
clippers, was preeminent. So a time came when 
the writer decided to secure, if possible, the facts 
at least sufficient for a biographical sketch, and if 
possible for a fairly complete biography. 

It is a pleasure to acknowledge that In the work 
then begun the most cordial aid was received from 
Mrs. Richard Fanning Loper, of Stonlngton, Con- 
necticut, a niece of Captain Palmer. The captain had 
lived with Captain Alexander Palmer, her father, 
for several years and such of his papers as remained 
were left in Mrs. Loper's possession. The old 
Palmer mansion at Stonlngton — a picturesque, shin- 
gle-covered structure that stood on the west side 
of town at a point overlooking the Sound and the 
sea — was burned on November 15, 1850, when many 
documents such as log books and letters were de- 
stroyed, but some, including the log of the little sloop 
Hero, kept during the memorable voyage to the 
Antarctic Continent, were saved. All the materials 
in Mrs. Loper's possession, together with notes made 
from memory by her father, by herself and others 

viii Preface 

have all been used In preparing this biography. But 
for the unwearied aid of Mrs. Loper it could not 
have been written. 

As for the facts obtained from contemporary 
periodicals and documents, credit is given where 
quotations are made. It should also be said, how- 
ever, that many statements relating to the clippers 
which were designed by Captain Palmer, as well as 
by others, are taken from the "The Clipper Ship 
Era," by Captain Arthur H. Clark, a work which 
gives a history of all the clippers. Including the 
British, which attracted public attention during the 
period. Captain Clark is "one of the last of the cap- 
tains of the old school," to quote a biographical 
sketch In "Some Merchants and Sea Captains of 
Old Boston." He wrote his history in part from 
personal knowledge but chiefly from authentic docu- 
ments, such as the log books of the ships, which he 
gathered during the many years when he was the 
New York representative of Lloyd's Register of 

The writer must also acknowledge that material 
help was received from Dr. James H. Weeks, of 
Stonlngton; Frederick William Edgerton, of the 
Public Library, New London; H. M. Lydenberg, 
of the New York Public Library; the librarian of the 
Boston Public Library; Captain W. C. Asserson, 
U. S. N., Acting Hydrographer, Washington; 
Homer Sheridan, managing editor, of the Marine 
Journal, New York; Kenneth Lord, city editor of 

Preface ix 

the New York Herald; A. J. Aubrey, of the Brook- 
lyn Eagle; S. Davles, Secretary of Lloyd's Register 
of Shipping; J. Murray Forbes, Milton, Mass., and 
Allan Forbes, of the State Street Trust Co., Boston. 

J. R. S. 

Little Falls, N. Y., September 14, 1921. 



I Trained in a Shipyard i 

II A Captain at Eighteen 14 

III Learning the Course to the South 

Shetlands 23 

IV Master of a Tiny Tender 42 

V Cruising Among the South Shetlands 51 

VI Exploring the Antarctic Coast ... 64 

VII European Explorers Among the Shet- 
lands 76 

VIII Superior Work of the Stonington Men 87 

IX Exploring with the Sloop "James 

Monroe" 92 

X Carrying Supplies to Bolivar ... 99 

XI Another Memorable Exploring Expe- 
dition Ill 

XII Captured by Convicts on Juan Fer- 
nandez 130 

XIII The Yankee Packets 141 

XIV Commodore of the Dramatic Line . . 154 

XV Record Passage from Liverpool to New 

York 164 

XVI The First Yankee Clipper . . . . 168 


xii Contents 


XVII The Griffiths Clippers 183 

XVIII The Captain and His Fleet . . . . 191 

XIX Good Qualities of the Clippers Con- 
sidered 222 

XX The ''Great Republic" Rebuilt . . 236 

XXI Hail and Farewell 243 


An Old-Time Sailor of the Sea 

Captain Nathaniel Brown Palmer 



CAPTAIN Nathaniel Brown Palmer was 
born In the old family home at Stonlngton 
on August 8, 1799. He was one among 
eight children — four boys and four girls. On his 
father's side he was descended from Walter Palmer 
who settled at Salem, Mass., in 1629, while his 
mother was of the Brown family of Rhode Island. 
His father, who also bore the name of Nathaniel 
Brown Palmer, was educated to practice law, but he 
preferred to hear the rasp of the pit saw and the 
crisp chip of the adz, rather than the dull drone of 
the court room, and so he made shipbuilding his 
life work. 

Because building ships was the work of the father, 
young Nat, as the boy born in 1799 was called to 
distinguish him from his father, had a shipyard 
for a playground from the time he was old enough 
to run around without the care of a nurse. Stonlng- 
ton, In those days, was a thriving seaport of about 


2 Captain Nathaniel Brown Palmer 

5,000 Inhabitants, standing at the mouth of Long 
Island Sound. When storms prevailed to eastward 
the coasters bound around Point Judith and so on 
to Providence or Boston or Portland, were In the 
habit of entering the harbor of Stonlngton to await 
pleasant weather. Then vessels that met misfortune 
when rounding Point Judith or Block Island, icund 
the Palmer shipyard a convenient place for making 
repairs. The coasters brought many a tidy repair 
job to the Palmer shipyard. 

In the matter of building new ships, the yard was 
favored by the fact that Connecticut oak stood higher 
in the estimation of ship owners than any except 
the live oak of Hatteras Island and the coast of 
Florida. Of course the final test of popularity of 
the yard depended on the quality of the work done, 
and the proof that the quality was of the highest is 
found in the fact that many vessels of all classes 
were built there. However, because the channel 
leading into the harbor carried only twelve feet of 
water the chief demand at the Palmer yard was for 
brigs, schooners, and sloops. 

As said, from the time that young Nat was able 
to navigate the sea of chips he went to his father's 
yard to play; and so he began to absorb a knowledge 
of hulls and spars before he went to school to learn 
his letters. He stood by while the workmen 
stretched keels on the blocks and erected the ribs; 
and he listened to what they said about the models 
of the hulls thus begun. He looked on with un- 

Trained in a Shipyard 3 

falling interest while other workmen, with endless 
chipping, shaped long logs of various diameters 
into masts and yards and booms and gaffs, discuss- 
ing, the while, the merits of the sticks they worked 
upon and the general dimensions of spars when 
compared with the sizes and shapes of the hulls 
for which they were designed. He learned what 
was meant when they said a vessel was over-sparred 
before he learned to work the rule of three. 

His admiration was excited early by the men 
who could rest one end of a slender stick on a rock 
and then with a keen-edged ax slice shaving after 
shaving down to within an inch of the rock until 
he made of the stick a treenail, that was either round 
or eight-square, and of the exact diameter to drive 
into its destined augur hole — all this without ever 
a slip that would endanger the edge on the ax. 
And then there was the man who could swing an 
ax in an overhead blow and split a chalk line three 
times in succession. Young Nat dreamed of the day 
when he, too, should be able to do that as well as 
any one. 

The shipbuilders of that day — the carpenters, 
the spar makers, the riggers, and so on — were proud 
of their skill. There was a friendly rivalry between 
them in the yard, each striving to outdo the others, 
not through any craven fear of the ''old man," as 
the owner was called, but for the love of the dis- 
tinguished consideration which skill brought to men 
who excelled. So the shipyard was more than a 

4 Captain Nathaniel Brotvn Palmer 

playground for the towsle-headed youngster ; it was 
a good school of the kindergarten variety. It was 
one of many which then gave character to the small, 
growing and somewhat towsle-brained nation. 

When a vessel was launched, and the people of 
the borough and the country round about came to 
cheer her on her way, young Nat was one of the 
privileged few who mounted the deck to ride down 
the ways. The click of the mauls as the iron wedges 
were driven into the keelblocks; the settling of the 
hull on the cradle as the blocks dropped to pieces; 
the final blow that released the trigger and let the 
hull slide down the ways, all thrilled the boy more 
than the men and women who cheered the event most 

Even that was not all. For while the hull was 
yet on the ways the workmen and other spectators 
talked about the poise the hull should have after 
going afloat. Hulls were designed wholly by rule 
o' thumb, in those days, and sometimes a ship was 
down by the bows when the designer had expected 
her to be down by the stern. And sometimes a hull 
showed a list to one side or the other. The boy 
listened while the workmen as well as the unhappy 
designer told just how such a hull happened to go 

Most important in the education of young Nat 
were these shipyard experiences; for they created 
or at any rate cultivated the bent of mind which 
eventually led him to design the ships of the Dra- 

Trained in a Shipyard 5 

matlc Line of Liverpool packets and the stately clip- 
pers Howqua, Samuel Russell, Oriental, and others 
which were most efficient and most famous in the 
China trade. 

That this boy learned to swim about as soon as 
he learned to walk was according to the custom of 
alongshore New England boys. One old account 
says that when a gang of youngsters went to the 
swimming hole, it frequently happened that boys 
who had not yet learned to swim jumped in, deter- 
mined to learn how, then and there — or get saved 
by some of the older ones present. Of course, too, 
the boy learned to handle a sailboat at the age when 
farm boys learned to ride a horse. For the boys 
of Stonlngton, a sail to the Middle Ground was a 
matter of no moment; but to reach away to Ram 
Island or the eastern end of Fisher's Island was an 
adventure, while sailing to New London or to 
Gardiner's Island was a voyage. 

Consider now the influence of the stories told by 
the sailors from the vessels which came to the 
Palmer yard for repairs. Those were the good old 
days of Jeffersonlan simplicity when the American 
people preferred paying tribute to the pirates of 
the north coast of Africa to fighting for freedom 
to sail their ships across the high seas — when they 
paid millions of tribute In the shape of coin, armed 
ships and naval stores to black pirates. No doubt 
seamen who had been in the Mediterranean came 
to Stonlngton and related their experiences on the 

6 Captain Nathaniel Brown Palmer 

African coast. Many — perhaps most — of them had 
been In the West Indies during the days when French 
and Spanish piratical privateers were raiding Ameri- 
can commerce, and these had tales of narrow escapes 
and of prison experiences to tell. Of the stories of 
shipwreck there was, of course, no end. The very 
presence of the vessels seeking repairs was usually 
due to some sort of disaster. In short, the common 
conversation of Stonlngton related to the sea just 
as people in the blue grass of Kentucky talk about 
the pedigrees of horses. 

More important still, perhaps, In shaping the early 
career of this young sailor-in-the-making, were the 
oft-told stories of the neighbors who had sailed with 
Captain Edmund Fanning in the brig Betsey ^ when, 
in 1 797-1 799, she went to the Falklands for fur 
seals; rounded the Horn and stopped at Mas-a-fuera 
off the coast of Chili for more, and then sailed on to 
Canton with 100,000 skins. That was a wonderfully 
profitable voyage for all hands on the ship, and 
they had sailed around the world. Moreover some 
of them remained on Mas-a-fuera to take skins for 
the Betsey for another voyage to follow the first. 
No sailors from Stonlngton had more exciting ad- 
venture tales to tell than these had. 

From the sunlit waters of the Caribbean to the 
ice fields of the far south, from New York around 
Cape Horn to Canton and China, the sailors of 
Stonlngton had seen many a strange sight of which 
they were ready to talk to the wondering boys at 

Trained in a Shipyard 'J 

home. So the winds that came unimpeded from be- 
yond the Cape of Good Hope to the Palmer ship- 
yard at Stonlngton called with a siren's voice to 
young Nat as he played among the chips. 

Of the political conditions prevailing In the nation 
during his boyhood young Nat no doubt knew much. 
When an embargo was laid on American shipping 
in an effort to compel the warring nations of Europe 
to deal justly with this country, the vigor with which 
the people of the town denounced the absurd meas- 
ure was certainly in part understood by the boy of 
ten — perhaps fully understood. He appreciated the 
effects of the measure beyond a doubt when he saw 
the dismantling of ships in the harbor. And when 
on June i8, 1812, war was declared, he was old 
enough to share In the excitement that prevailed all 

That the interest of the boy In that war increased 
with the passage of time is also beyond doubt, for 
Stonlngton occupied a notable position. 

The borough stood on a point of land, called 
Long Point, opposite the east end of Fisher's Island, 
and therefore faced the open sea as well as the east 
end of Long Island Sound. The anchorage of that 
day was a roadstead rather than a harbor and In 
later years breakwaters were built to shelter the 
shipping of the port. Nevertheless It was frequently 
used by the coasting vessels as already noted — espe- 
cially during northeast storms. When the War of 
1 8 12 came on it was popular for another reason. It 

8 Captain Nathaniel Brown Palmer 

became a resort for blockade runners. For the 
enemy sent a war squadron under Commodore Sir 
Thomas M. Hardy (he had been the favorite cap- 
tain of Admiral Nelson) , to blockade the east end of 
Long Island Sound. These ships reached to and fro 
between Montauk Point and Point Judith where 
they were nearly always within view of Stonington. 

In foul weather the crews of the squadron were es- 
pecially vigilant but they were never able to stop the 
coasting traffic of the Yankees. Indeed the blockade 
did but give zest to the traffic, for the danger added 
greatly to the profits of each successful passage. 
Thus at New York where the grain of the Hudson 
watershed could be obtained, the price of flour was 
but $7 a barrel. At Boston, where the people had 
been accustomed to depend on New York for their 
supplies, the price quickly rose to $14. Captain 
Jacob Dunham, in his reminiscences, tells how he 
bought the sloop Rover for $500, loaded her with 
500 barrels of flour which he carried through the 
blockade to eastern ports and sold for $4,000 net 
profit. Some one ought to write a book on "Profits 
and Progress," for it can be easily demonstrated 
that high profits create swift progress. 

The profits in blockade running were a perpetual 
call to the daring seamen of the coast, and nowhere 
was the call louder than at Stonington. For the 
usual route of the coaster was through Fisher's Is- 
land Sound and so within easy reach of the Stoning- 
ton anchorage. When fog and wind favored her 

Trained in a Shipyard 9 

the coaster held her way; when clearing weather 
seemed coming on, or when daylight was at hand, 
the coaster dropped anchor near the borough. Cap- 
tain Dunham says that blockade runners could be 
seen at anchor there at all times when the weather 
was fair. The people — more especially the boys 
of Stonington — had the daring crews of these vessels 
always in mind. 

Moreover they saw the coasters when In deadly 
peril. Many a time the fog cleared away unexpect- 
edly while a sloop or a schooner was passing Point 
Judith or was under Watch Hill, and the nearest 
warship of the enemy came In hot pursuit. Every 
sail was spread on pursuer and pursued and then 
the guns on the warship began to roar. Many an 
Interesting yacht race has been seen from Stoning- 
ton, but consider how the excitement grew as the 
Pactolus frigate, or the sloop Despatch, fired shot 
that knocked the spray over the rail of the hunted 
coaster and even carried away the tophamper. And 
when the crew of the coaster were seen at work 
wetting down their sails to Increase her speed we 
may well believe that the spectators fairly shrieked 
their approval. 

Sometimes the flying Yankee held her way In 
spite of Injuries and came fluttering Into port like a 
wounded wild fowl. Sometimes the crew of a cap- 
tured coaster rose on the prize crew and retook her 
as was the luck of the crew of the Natina, Captain 

10 Captain Nathaniel Brown Palmer 

The boys of Stonington knew the coasters as well 
as a landsman knows the houses of his home town. 
They were personally acquainted with many mem- 
bers of the crews. Indeed, there were Stonington 
men and boys on many of the blockade runners. 
When one of these little vessels dropped anchor off 
the point it was the custom for some of the crew 
to come ashore, where they told in the picturesque 
language of the sea how they had managed to escape 
the enemy — told the story to listeners who became 
wellnigh breathless because of their intense interest. 

But .war was to come still closer to the people of 
Stonington. The borough had been bombarded, 
though all in vain, during the War of the Revolu- 
tion. On August 9, 1 8 14, Commodore Hardy came 
to bombard it again because he had heard that the 
Stoningtonians were building torpedoes with which 
to attack his squadron. As the story is told in H. D. 
Palmer's "Stonington by the Sea," the 74-gun liner 
Ramilies, the 44-gun frigate Pactolus, the 22-gun 
brig Despatch and the bomb brig Terror reached 
in to anchor at a point where their guns would bear. 
Then a boat brought ashore a message which read: 

"Not wishing to destroy the unoffending inhabi- 
tants of Stonington, one hour is given them from the 
receipt of this to remove out of town." 

The non-combatants left the town; the men 
loaded two old-fashioned i8-pounders, which were 
standing in a small earthwork on the point. They 
had at hand a 4-pounder but it was not loaded then. 

Trained in a Shipyard II 

They had two guns with which to reply to four ships 
which together mounted 140 effective cannon besides 
an unknown number of mortars on the Terror, some 
of the shells from which weighed more than 200 
pounds. In the history of war there are few stories 
of men who faced greater odds than that. 

At 8 o'clock that night the Terror began shelling 
the town. The crews of the two i8-pounders — 
sailors, no doubt, who had faced the perils of the 
sea ever since the previous war — returned the fire. 
And at the first shot they fired they demonstrated 
that the odds were in their favor! For their shot 
struck home. They knew how to aim their guns 
while the enemy fired with enthusiasm and nothing 
better to direct their shells. 

Seeing that his fire was Ineffective while that of 
the two 1 8-pounders were sinking the T error ^ Com- 
modore Hardy at 9 o'clock, sent six or seven huge 
rowboats to a position from which they could shower 
the town with Congreve rockets, a weapon then 
supposed to be especially efficient in firing wooden 
houses. A few houses were thus set on fire but the 
Stoningtonians extinguished the flames. The fire 
of shot which was meantime directed on the two 
1 8-pounders eventually cut the old ''gridiron flag" 
from its staff in the little earthwork, but a big 
gunner stepped to the flagstaff where another man, 
flag in hand, mounted his shoulders and nailed it to 
the staff. 

At midnight Commodore Hardy acknowledged 

12 Captain Nathaniel Brown Palmer 

that he had failed thus far — acknowledged it by 
sending a flotilla of longboats to effect a landing. 
Thereupon the Stoningtonians brought their 4- 
pounder as well as one of the i8-pounders to bear 
on these boats. 

''We tore one of their barges all to pieces," wrote 
Captain Amos Palmer, in a letter to the Secretary 
of the Navy, later, "so that two, one on each side, 
had to lash her up to keep her from sinking." 

At that the flotilla fled, which was something 
British sailors have rarely done. Then the fire at 
the warships was renewed. The bombardment was 
continued, off and on, for three days. In that time 
the sloop Despatch alone lost 21 killed and 50 
wounded from the fire of the two i8-pounders, as 
was learned from one of her officers after the war. 
The loss on the other warships was never told. In 
Stonington one man was hurt — mortally wounded. 
Not a house was destroyed. The people picked up 
fifteen tons of projectiles after the battle ended. 
Some of them are yet on view. So is the tattered 
old flag which floated above the two i8-pounders. 

It was among such neighbors as these men who 
would fight regardless of the odds that young Nat 
Palmer was born and reared. Moreover it was the 
proud boast of the people there that one of them — 
Midshipman Nathaniel Fanning — had fought under 
John Paul Jones on the Bon Homme Richard and 
had heard the memorable words "I have not yet 

Trained in a Shipyard 13 

begun to fight." In no town in the world was a 
higher standard of manhood maintained. 

But whether young Nat was at home when the 
borough was bombarded is doubtful for he had, 
earlier in the year, shipped as a boy before the mast 
in one of the blockade runners which plied to and 
fro from New York to Portland, regardless of the 



THE only written record of the experiences 
of young Nat Palmer as a sailor on a block- 
ade runner, during the War of 1812, is the 
statement that one vessel on which he was employed 
was burned in the harbor at New Haven. But some 
of the conditions under which he made his way 
through the blockading squadrons, from time to 
time, are well known, and may be described here in 
order to show the kind of life he led and its effects 
upon his development as a sailor of the sail. 

First of all it may be noted that there was not 
a lighthouse in commission anywhere along shore. 
The buoys which had been placed here and there 
to mark the reefs and shoals had all been removed 
at the opening of the war, lest they serve to guide the 
enemy. Sailing along the American coast was like 
sailing on some newly-discovered littoral, save only 
as the captain of each American vessel knew the 
lay of the land, and could locate dangerous water 
by distant marks such as hills and houses, which 
were visible in clear weather. 

In making a passage, as from New York to Bos- 
ton, the vessel usually had clear sailing until within 


A Captain at Eighteen 1 5 

sight of the blockading squadron, say, off New Lon- 
don. It was therefore the custom, when the air was 
clear, to sail along boldly on this passage as far as 
that port or to Huntington, Long Island, and then 
anchor to wait for fog or a dark night. With a fog 
during a night when the moon was not shining the 
captain of a blockade runner felt entirely safe; for 
all the captains in the business were like the pilot on 
the Mississippi of whom Mark Twain told — they 
knew the waters through which they were to steer 
as well as they knew the lay of the rooms in their 
own homes. A cast of the lead was the only aid 
to trained instinct needed when making the run. 

The skill of the crews who handled these vessels 
is memorable; for it was something marvelous in 
the eyes of foreigners. Consider the sloops that 
were commonly used. Some of them were from 50 
to 75 feet long. The masts were much taller than 
the hulls were long and some booms were five feet 
longer than the hulls. A 75-foot sloop commonly 
had a mast 84 or 85 feet tall with a boom that was 
80 feet long. The mainsail was comparable with 
that of a "giant" defender of the America's cup, 
but a crew of six men handled any one of those 
sloops, where the cup racers have carried from thirty 
to forty. And one man at the tiller could gibe the 
main boom over in a smart breeze without bringing 
enough strain on sheet or masthead to break a rope- 

The young apprentice from Stonington was 

1 6 Captain Nathaniel Brown Palmer 

trained to handle the tiller by men who could do just 
that well; and In due course he became as expert 
as they were. In fair winds and foul; in gentle airs 
and in roaring gales, he had to stand his trick at 
the tiller, noting the while not only the influence of 
the wind but the influence of tidal currents, which 
were sometimes favorable and sometimes adverse. 
More important still, considering the work he was 
to do later, he had to do all this at night and when 
the fog was so thick on the water that he could not 
see the jib when he stood at the tiller. 

It was said of the blockade-running skippers that 
they could "smell their way from Hell Gate to 
Providence with their eyes shut" ; and that was not 
as much of an exaggeration as It may seem to mod- 
ern navigators of Long Island Sound. 

Throughout the War of 1812 and until 18 18 
young Nat sailed upon vessels which were engaged 
in trade between New York and the New England 
ports. He thus learned the arts of the coasting trade 
so well that he was promoted first to the rank of 
second mate and then mate. Before he was 19 he 
became master of a schooner named Galena. He 
had maintained the reputation of his home port, for 
Stoningtonians made boast of the ability of their 
boys to secure command before they were of an age 
to vote. 

The peculiar skill which young Nat had acquired 
while working his way aft — the ability to navigate 
among the shoals In foul weather as well as fair — 

A Captain at Eighteen 17 

was now to take him from the coasting trade to a 
voyage on deep water and yet demote him; for he 
was invited to take part as a second mate in an ex- 
pedition, fitted out at private expense, to explore 
the unknown waters below Cape Horn. The object 
in view was the location of islands supposed to exist 
there, which were known to tradition as the Auroras, 
and these islands were supposed to be the summer 
home of vast herds of fur seals. 

Because young Nat joined in this expedition and 
thus became a noted sealer, a brief review of the 
seal fishery will give a needed focus upon that period 
of his life. According to a history issued by the 
U. S. Fish Commission '*a Boston lady named 
Haley * was led to bear the expense of fitting out 
the ship States for a voyage to the Falkland Islands 
for hair seal skins and sea elephant oil," soon after 
the War of the Revolution. 

Skins of the hair seal were then used raw to 
cover trunks. They were also tanned for various 
uses. Sea elephant oil sold for as much as that of 
the right whale. The States returned to New York 
with a full cargo of hair seal skins and of elephant 
oil, together with 13,000 skins of the fur seal, which, 
says the record, were brought "as an experiment." 

An "experiment" was characteristic of the Ameri- 
can sailors of the day. They would try any kind 
of work that promised a large profit. This ex- 

* Sister of John Wilkes, a member of Parliament, who became 
a popular hero after publishing a pamphlet attacking George III 

1 8 Captain Nathaniel Brown Palmer 

perlment had a far-reaching effect. When the furs 
arrived in New York nobody knew what to do 
with them, but they were sold for 50 cents each 
to a buyer who supposed that at worst they might 
be tanned as were those of the hair seal. Then 
a venturesome merchant bought them and shipped 
them to Calcutta. He '^guessed" they were the 
skins of sea otters, instead of seals, and he had 
heard that sea otter skins sold for more than $20 
each in Canton. He shipped the skins to Calcutta 
instead of Canton because he "guessed" one Asi- 
atic port would prove as desirable as another, 
and because he found a ship ready for that port 
while none was ready for Canton. He learned in 
time that no one in Calcutta would buy them, but 
they were then shipped to Canton where they brought 
$5 each or $65,000 for the consignment. 

The development of the fur-seal fishery followed 
that speculation. Among the venturesome mer- 
chants of New York, in those days, was Elias Nex- 
sen. He fitted out the brig Betsey for a sealing 
voyage in 1792. The mate of the brig was a 
Stonington boy named Edmund Fanning who, about 
forty years later, wrote a book entitled "Voyages 
Around the World," in which he described the ad- 
ventures of the Betsey*s crew while at the Falk- 
land Islands. The skins taken by the Betsey were 
carried to New York, but another vessel, the Eliza, 
Captain William R. Stewart, which took 38,000 
skins at Juan Fernandez, carried them to Canton, 

A Captain at Eighteen 19 

where they were sold for only 50 cents each. The 
Chinese market had been depressed by the number 
of skins. 

In 1797 Mr. Nexsen fitted out the Retsey for 
another sealing voyage with Captain Edmund Fan- 
ning in command. The Betsey called at the Falk- 
lands and Mas-a-fuera and then carried 100,000 
skins to Canton. Fannlng's book does not tell the 
price received for the skins, nor the gross return 
from the China goods he secured In exchange for 
them, but It says that the net profit of the owners 
of the Betsey amounted to $52,300. The Betsey 
measured less than 100 tons and was probably worth 
less than $3,000. At about this time the ship Nep- 
tune, Captain Daniel Green, of New Haven, gath- 
ered 45,000 skins at the Falklands and Juan 
Fernandez, which sold for $90,000 in Canton. The 
China goods then purchased sold for $260,000 in 
New York and the profits were so large that the 
lay of the forecastle hands amounted to $1,200 each. 

Thereafter voyages to the fur-seal islands were 
made every year, among which only one, that of 
Captain Edmund Fanning, In a well-armed ship 
named Aspasia, need be considered here. The cap- 
tain sailed in 1800 to the South Georgia islands 
where he secured 57,000 prime furs which he sold 
in Canton at great profit. 

Another sealer who made money was Captain 
Amasa Delano, who wrote a book, describing his 
adventures, which was Issued in 18 17 and had a 

20 Captain Nathaniel Brown Palmer 

wide circulation. Meantime, vessels from nearly 
all the American whaling ports had tried the seal 
fishery. The result was practical extermination of 
the known herds. It was said that 3,000,000 seals 
were taken from Juan Fernandez alone. The scar- 
city of seals on the known rookeries, as the seal 
beaches were, and are, called, caused the failure 
of several ventures in the fishery and It was then 
that the exploring expedition in search of the 
Auroras was planned. 

The prime mover In this expedition was Captain 
Edmund Fanning, who had retired from the sea. 
He had secured copies of the reports of various early 
explorers, among which was that of Skipper DIrck 
Gherrltz, the Dutchman who rounded the Horn 
in 1599. Another was the report of the captain 
of the Spanish corvette Atrevida. Both of these 
reports mentioned lands seen south of Cape Horn. 

While the existence of these lands was doubted 
by most geographers, because no one had seen them 
in recent times. Captain Fanning believed in them. 
For while he was at the South Georglas, with the 
Aspasia, he had seen immense Icebergs and fields 
of ice sailing with the southwest gales, which pre- 
vailed most of the time, and he had previously 
observed that such masses of ice were formed only 
in connection with lands of considerable extent. 
The Ice convinced him that land was to be found 
"somewhere between the latitudes of 60° and 65° 

A Captain at Eighteen 21 

south and between 50° and 60° west" (pp. 428- 
429, 'Tanning's Voyages"). 

Because the captain and his friends had already 
made fortunes in just such ventures they were 
ready, when the fishery failed in 18 17, to venture 
the capital needed for a search for the Auroras. 
For this purpose they selected ''the brig Hersilia, 
a fine new vessel, coppered and fitted in the best 
manner." Captain James A. Sheffield, an experi- 
enced and successful sealer, was placed in command. 
The selecting of the crew, which now became the 
duty of Captain Sheffield, is worth a few words of 

The Hersilia was to sail into waters that were 
not only uncharted but they had not been visited, 
so far as could be learned, since the two vessels 
mentioned above had seen the lost lands. But it 
was very well known that the whole region south 
of the Horn was lashed and torn by storms of snow 
and sleet, in summer as well as winter, and that 
even a week of pleasant weather was rarely seen 
at any time of the year. Further, during the sum- 
mer season, when the Hersilia was to arrive, was the 
time when the ice fields of the region broke loose 
from the land and were driven before the all but 
ceaseless gales. It was known, too, that the ice 
masses around which the gales raged were shrouded 
in the blackest of fogs and blotted from view by 
heavy snow squalls for many days at a stretch. 

22 Captain Nathaniel Brown Palmer 

Finally, the Islands, If found, were sure to be sur- 
rounded by reefs and sunken rocks upon which the 
brig was likely to strike whenever she ventured near 
enough to learn where the seals were to be found. 

For junior officers. Captain Sheffield needed men, 
of each of whom It might truthfully be said that 
"he could smell his way through fog by night from 
Hell Gate to Providence." So, he Invited young 
Nat Palmer to go along as second mate, although 
the boy had never made a deep-water voyage. 
Whereupon Nat, with love of adventure spurring 
him on, accepted the Invitation. 



THE Hersilia left Stonington In July, 1819, 
bound, first of all, to the Cape de Verde 
Islands for salt with which to cure the 
furs she was to get if and when she found the 
Auroras, Seal skins were commonly cured by dry- 
ing, in those days, but it was believed that the 
rains, sleets and snows prevailing in the region south 
of Cape Horn would prevent drying. Having pur- 
chased 600 bushels of salt at the islands the brig 
squared away for the Falkland Islands, where she 
stopped to fill her water casks and to refresh her 
crews. For scurvy was the scourge of the sea, and 
fresh provisions provided the only known remedy. 
The Falklands, though a treeless group, had been 
stocked with cattle and hogs by early explorers, 
and both kinds of animals had thrived. Then thou- 
sands of wild fowl came there in the nesting season 
and their eggs were to be had in any quantity; for 
it was in October, the beginning of the summer sea- 
son, when the Hersilia arrived there. Furthermore, 
a species of grass, with stalks eight to ten feet high, 
abounded, and the roots and stalks were good to 
eat, and they were an excellent antiscorbutic. 


24 Captain Nathaniel Brown Palmer 

In order to gather a large supply of fresh eggs, 
wild fowl, pork and beef, and of the greens, Second 
Mate Nat Palmer and one of the sailors were 
landed on an island where the supplies were to be 
had, as soon as the Hersilia arrived. The brig then 
sailed away to the south of Staten Island in order 
to carry on the search for Aurora Islands during 
the time the two men were gathering the supplies. 

Leaving young Palmer and the sailor thus and 
going on with the search was characteristic of our 
sailors of the sail in those days. A captain from 
Europe would have anchored at the island while 
the crew as a whole gathered the supplies — as one 
did do while young Nat was there. But Sheffield 
had come to search for seal islands and he would 
not spend even one day unnecessarily in port. He 
was thus not only economizing time but he was 
doing all he could to forestall any other vessel that 
might come to those waters on the same errand. 
The American sailor of the sail was not to be 
''caught napping." And it was because young Nat 
was especially alert that this exploring voyage 
proved notably successful, and is now memorable 
for something more than the profit secured. 

One day while Palmer and his man were busy 
with their work, they saw a strange sail — a brig that 
was manifestly not the Hersilia — appear in the 
northwest. A little later it was seen that she was 
heading in to make the harbor in their island. One 
account says that young Nat then went off and 

Learning the Course to the South Shetlands 25 

piloted her In but another makes no mention of 
his going to meet her. It Is certain, however, that 
when she had anchored in the harbor young Nat 
perceived that she had been elaborately fitted out 
for sealing. He now wanted to learn where she 
expected to find seals — whether she was to work the 
well-known rookeries or some that were newly dis- 
covered; and If the latter, where they were located. 

What he did learn was that the brig was named 
Espirito Santo. She was from Buenos Ayres but 
she was owned by Englishmen and was manned by 
English sailors. American and British writers 
were constantly nagging each other In those days, 
but young Nat and his man were cordially received 
by the English captain. In return the two Yankees 
went to work to help the British crew secure a full 
supply of fresh provisions; and Yankee efficiency 
soon overcame any lurking prejudice which mem- 
bers of the crew of the Espirito Santo may have 

Pleasant relations having thus been established, 
young Nat was able to learn that the brig had been 
fitted for a short voyage. Where she was bound 
her crew naturally refused to tell, but why she had 
been fitted out was told. A seal Island had been 
discovered in recent times by a merchantman round- 
ing the Horn, and the Espirito Santo was to make 
the first killing. 

The story of the discovery of this new Island 
is now told in Findlay's "Sailing Directory for the 

26 Captain Nathaniel Brown Palmer 

South Atlantic Ocean." A British brig named 
JVilliam, Captain William Smith, of Blyth (he was 
later knighted), was in those days plying regularly 
between the River Plate and Valparaiso, carrying 
freight, passengers and the mails. Nowhere else 
in the world was a regular service maintained under 
such distressful and perilous conditions as those pre- 
vailing along the route around Cape Horn. The 
passage of the JVilliam to the west was usually 
made under especially bad conditions because the 
prevailing winds were from the west. Gale followed 
gale in swift succession and every blast was laden 
with snow, sleet and spray. The decks became at 
times coated with ice and the rigging was frozen 
stiff. The little brig on some voyages beat to and 
fro for many days at a stretch without making a 
mile on her course to westward; and it sometimes 
happened that she was driven so far back and away 
from her course that a week of fair winds was 
needed to enable her to recover the position from 
which the storm had driven her. 

In February, 1818, one of these storms came 
upon her as she was beating to westward. The 
wind (and the current as well), carried her help- 
less, to the south as well as the east, and while 
she was thus wallowing in the seas, the murk of 
the storm opened and a mountainous island covered 
for the most part with ice and snow was seen. Be- 
cause no land was marked on the William's chart 
of that region, Captain Smith, on his return to 

Learning the Course to the South Shetlands 27 

Buenos Ayres, sent a report of what he had seen 
to the Board of Trade, in London. Then, on his 
next passage westward, he reached down to make a 
more careful examination of land. His report of 
what he then saw was In part as follows: 

'*I . . . discovered land on the 15th of October 
at 6 P. M. in lat. 62° 30', long. 60"^ W. by chrono- 
meter. . . . Hauled off during the night. ... At 
daylight stood In . . . got the island to bear N. W. 
distant half a league. . . . Finding the weather fa- 
vourable we down boat and landed; found it barren 
and covered with snow. Seals in abundance." 

It was this report, as made in Buenos Ayres, on 
his return thither after this second voyage, that had 
brought the Epirito Santo on a sealing expedition. 
She was sailing on definite information about an 
island of which the people of Stonington had heard 

That the Englishmen did not tell young Nat 
Palmer where the island lay was entirely natural. 
Their hope of large profit lay in keeping the posi- 
tion of the island secret. But the young sailor did 
learn that the Island had been discovered by a vessel 
which had been blown from its course while sailing 
to the west around the Horn. The quick-witted 
youth then reasoned that the new land must lie east 
of the longitude of the Horn. Further than that 
it was probable that the brig had been lying to on 
the starboard tack, when the island was seen, be- 

28 Captain Nathaniel Brown Palmer 

cause she would Inevitably take that tack in order 
to drift away from the reefs around the Horn. He 
knew that while lying to thus on the starboard tack 
every blast of the gale had certainly driven her a 
longer distance to the south than to the east — her 
course while drifting had been, very likely, to the 
south-southeast. So the young sailor reasoned from 
his experience when drifting with the gales through 
the fogs of Long Island Sound, during previous 
years. It was because of that experience that he 
had been brought on the expedition, and now his 
ability to figure out the course of a drifting ship 
was to be of very great service. 

When the Espirito Santo left port, young Nat 
watched her as long as he could see her and thus 
learned that she was sailing on a course which would 
take her to a point where he estimated the William 
had found the new land; and he impatiently waited 
the return of the Hersilia. 

At the end of three days the brig came sailing 
into the harbor. As soon as he boarded her young 
Nat told his story to Captain Sheffield and gave his 
estimate of the course to take. The captain at once 
concurred In the estimate; and after taking on the 
fresh food young Nat and the sailor had secured, 
the Hersilia made sail in the wake of the Espirito 
Santo. For four days she held the course as laid 
down by young Nat and then, as the afternoon 
waned, the lookout at the forecrosstrees gave the 
thrilling cry of "Land hoi" 

Learning the Course to the South Shetlands 29 

The Islands to which Second Mate Palmer had 
thus instinctively guided the Hersilia are now known 
as the South Shetlands. As described In various 
works the group Is an archipelago of volcanic origin 
which is 260 miles long if measured in a north- 
east and southwest direction. There are ten large 
islands, all of which are separated one from another 
by deep channels, but around all of these are many 
islets and reefs where the depth of water is un- 
known. At the northeast end the largest of the 
group is named King George (Powell's chart). 
The next largest, Livingston, lies near the south- 
west end of the chain. Smith's Island, named for 
the discoverer, William Smith, Is well off to the west 
of Livingston, but the most interesting of the whole 
group, to the ordinary reader, Is a small one south 
of Livingston which was named Deception by the 
Yankee sealers, and it still holds that name. 

Nearly all of the Islands are mountainous, the 
peaks rising from 2,000 to 3,000 feet above the 
sea, and one on Smith's Island is 6,600 feet high. 
Every mountain is covered with snow the year 
round, save for a narrow rim near the sea, and In 
every canyon is a glacier. No soil or even sand 
is found in the bare terrane alongshore (save only 
in Yankee Harbor), but there Is mud at the bottom 
of some of the harbors. Broken and ragged lava 
formations are seen wherever the snow is melted 
away in summer, and the only vegetation Is a sort 
of moss. 

30 Captain Nathaniel Brown Palmer 

The shores of the larger Islands are all deeply 
indented with fiords and bays, thus providing many 
harbors, some of which are land-locked and safe 
in the worst storms. 

When the air Is clear the Islands are visible from 
incredible distances. Dr. Eights, a scientist who 
went there with an exploring expedition to be de- 
scribed In another chapter, wrote that "the nu- 
merous furrows and ravines . . . are distinctly 
visible for fifty or sixty miles" (Niles's Register, 
May 8, 1834). But while he was there, "not a 
day occurred that snow did not fall, or Ice make 
on our decks. . . . The prevailing winds were 
from the southwest and northwest." A current 
that flowed constantly from the southwest was ob- 
served, and when this was measured later, by Cap- 
tain Palmer, he ascertained that the speed was three 
knots an hour. 

Dr. Eights wrote that "there were evidences of 
a number of active volcanoes In the vicinity," and 
numerous pieces of pumice stone were "strewed 
along the beaches." 

The wild life of the islands attracted more at- 
tention from the doctor than any other feature. 
"In calm weather great number of whales were seen 
breaking the surface of the ocean between tjie nu- 
merous Icebergs. . . . When they perish their car- 
casses are taken by the billows and thrown far upon 
the land; here they are left by the waves and In a 
few hours their bones become perfectly denuded by 

Learning the Course to the South Shetlands 31 

the numberless sea birds that feed upon their flesh. 
. . . Entire skeletons of the whale, fifty or sixty 
feet in length, are not infrequently found in elevated 
situations — many feet above the highwater line." 

Dolphins and porpoises abounded. There were 
seemingly millions of the birds of the region, vary- 
ing in size from the albatross to the stormy petrel. 
It is said that the petrels laid their eggs in a heap of 
warm volcanic ashes found on one island and that 
the eggs were hatched without further care from the 

No adequate description of the dangers of naviga- 
tion among the group has ever been written, or can 
be. To say that hundreds of icebergs and other 
masses of ice, including vast fields, are to be seen 
among and around the islands at all times does not 
suffice; but if the reader can imagine those ice masses 
clashing together during the hurricane squalls and 
while dense fogs and blinding snow squalls prevail; 
and while the drag of the currents among the reefs 
is added to all other dangers, perhaps the situation 
of sealers afloat there will be comprehended; and 
some idea of the conditions under which the Stoning- 
ton sailors gathered their harvest will be had. 

As it happened when the Hersilia arrived within 
view of the group the weather was vile. For two 
days she lay to in the lee of an island. Then the 
air cleared, the sea became smooth and she was able 
to stand Into a harbor which could be seen when 
off shore. When close in, a boat was lowered with 

32 Captain Nathaniel Brown Palmer 

which young Nat went ahead to look for a clear 
channel. Rounding a point at the entrance of the 
harbor he saw the Espirito Santo at anchor within, 
but no one was to be seen on her deck. Accord- 
ingly he rowed alongside and, climbing on board, 
looked around, only to find that she seemed to be 
wholly deserted. Then he walked to the open main 
hatch and saw in the hold the captain at work with 
a boy, salting down seal skins. 

Young Nat's footsteps made the captain look up 
hastily, and with an exclamation of surprise he rec- 
ognized the youth who had helped to provide fresh 
supplies for the Espirito Santo at the Falklands. 
But the Englishman was what would now be called 
a good sport. 

"Never mind," he said. "There are plenty of 
seals for all." 

It was so. The rookeries were covered with 
thousands of seals of all sizes. Both crews were 
able to secure full cargoes from the finest of the 
herds. It Is a memorable fact, too, that when the 
Englishman had finished his own load he turned to 
and helped the Hersilias to complete their cargo. 
He was working on the theory that "blood Is thicker 
than water," to quote the words of another sailor 
which were expressed years later in China. 

In order that the reader who Is not familiar 
with the seal fishery may appreciate the work of 
young Palmer at the Shetland Islands, it seems need- 
ful to interrupt the narrative of events and describe 

Learning the Course to the South Shetlands 33 

in some detail the methods by which the sealers 
secured their furs, and to give a few notes on the 
habits of the seals. 

According to the records the seals of the Antarc- 
tic come to the beaches to which they resort during 
the month of November. First of all the old males, 
called wigs, appear and take stations on the rocks 
and shingie alongshore. The most powerful of 
these seals choose places near the centers of the 
largest beaches. The less powerful go where they 
will be undisturbed by the big ones; for vicious 
battles occur when two old wigs come anywhere 
near each other. 

In a few days the females follow and soon bring 
forth their young. They are meantime gathered 
into large harems around the more powerful males 
in the middle grounds and into small groups by the 
outlying males. The larger groups number any- 
where from fifty to a hundred while the outlying 
males may have no more than four or five or even 

The young males of from two to four years of 
age, being unable to compete with their fathers, 
gather in herds apart. The skins of these young- 
sters always bring the highest prices In the market. 

After the young are born the mother seals go 
out to sea for food, leaving their young (one each) 
asleep In the midst of the masses of other young. 
They are away feeding for hours at a stretch but 
when they return and call to their pups each is 

34 Captain Nathaniel Brown Palmer 

answered by her own, and each goes to her own 
without error. 

The large assemblies of seals are called rookeries. 
Small assemblies numbering from two or three up 
to a dozen or so are to be found on some of the 
flat-topped rocks that rise above the tide off shore. 
Rocks of the kind found on the half-tide reefs 
usually have a few seals as regular visitors. No 
matter how heavy the pounding of the surf on the 
reefs around such a rock, the seals come snorting 
and playing through all, climb the slope to the crest 
and there, where the spray Is continuously thrown 
upon them, they stretch out and go to sleep. 

The work of securing seal skins was In some re- 
spects the most dangerous and perhaps In all re- 
spects the most disagreeable known to our sailors 
of the sail. It was especially so during the second 
voyage of young Palmer to the South Shetlands 
because of the competition. When two vessels only 
were among the Islands (as during his first voyage), 
the men could choose their rookeries and consider 
the conditions of the weather with an eye to safety 
if not for comfort. But with thirty most energetic 
crews competing among the Islands, as happened 
at the South Shetlands during the season of 1820- 
182 1, every day was a working day, and to secure a 
full harvest It was necessary to visit the outlying 
rocks as well as the populous rookeries. 

Whaleboats were used to carry the men from 
the vessels to some of the smaller rookeries. These 

Learning the Course to the South Shetlands. 35 

boats were around 25 feet long, 5 wide and 2 deep. 
White oak was used for their frames and half-inch 
cedar for the planks. In model these boats were 
like those of the Vikings — sharp at both ends. 
When afloat each boat was manned by five or six 
men, one of whom was usually a mate who stood 
at the stern and steered by means of a long oar. 
As second mate of the Hersilia young Nat had 
plenty of experience in handling these boats, and 
when a landing was to be made through the heavy 
surf on a rock-strewn beach he held the lives of 
the crew in his hands. For the rookeries were al- 
ways found on the beaches exposed to the seas. 
The waves came unimpeded over a thousand miles 
of open water, and where they crashed down on the 
rock-strewn slope — where the whaleboat had to 
land — they covered and concealed numberless bowl- 
ders and rock masses which were death traps for the 
sealers. But the young mate, standing with legs 
wide apart at the stern, and with both hands on the 
long steering oar, peered through the spoondrift 
ahead for the hidden reefs, the while he instinctively 
hastened or slowed the stroke of the oarsmen until 
a great wave lifted the boat on its crest and then 
rushed on until it flattened out where the water 
shoaled so that the men could leap over the rails 
and drag the frail craft up to safety. 

Taking seals from the off-shore rocks was still 
more trying. At first thought one would suppose 
that the sealers would wait for a quiet day and then 

36 Captain Nathaniel Brown Palmer 

row out to the lone rocks and capture the seals at 
ease. But the fact Is that many of those rocks 
were not to be scaled in quiet weather, for they were 
steep-sided and towered high above the still water. 
It was only when storms prevailed and the waves 
rolled high enough to lift a boat up to the level 
of the top of the rock that the seals there could 
be secured. 

Consider, now, how these seals were taken from 
the rocks. Waiting until a gale came to drive the 
needed high waves directly past a deep-water face 
of the seal rock, the crew of a whaleboat rowed 
away to a point say a half-mile up wind from the 
chosen reef. There the boat was turned and headed 
back directly for the rock, when the men at the 
oars pulled steadily until the mate judged they were 
within striking distance, which means that he be- 
lieved the boat, with lively rowing, could be sent 
past the rock on the crest of one of those immense 
rollers which come In threes. Then the bow oars- 
man took In his oar, picked up a club, slipped a 
coil of whale line over his arm and stood up on 
his thwart, facing the rock. The crew, meantime, 
pulled their oars with all their might until the boat 
seemed about to crash against the rock, when the 
mate turned the bow to one side, the oars were al- 
lowed to trail and then, as the boat drove swiftly 
past, the bowman leaped forth to land on the rock 
as best he could. 

Occasionally a man fell short, and was picked up 

Learning the Course to the South Shetlands 37 

or drowned as the case might be, but usually a land- 
ing was effected; when the seals were knocked in 
the head and skinned. Of course the man and his 
catch were recovered by similar dashes past the 
rock, the bundle of skins being hauled off, first of 
all, by means of the whale line. 

During Captain Nat's second voyage the seal- 
ers from thirty different vessels (and more espe- 
cially the English and the Yankee sealers) eagerly 
raced through the living storms of the South Shet- 
lands to positions from which a man could leap 
from a driven boat on the crest of a wave to the 
crest of a rock which was at all other times in- 
accessible. One hundred years later — on a day in 
July, 1920 — a British crew and an American crew, 
each the pick of its own nation, went out to sea off 
Sandy Hook, New York, to sail two splendid yachts 
in a friendly competition for the most famous trophy 
known to the history of manly sports — the Ameri- 
ca's cup. As a piece of silver the cup was insignifi- 
cant, but to win it was to secure the leadership of 
the yachting world. It was a contest for Honor. 

But when the yachtmen arrived at the old light- 
ship they found the wind blowing at the rate of 
twenty knots an hour and the sea was rumpled. 
One look upon the rumples was enough for them. 
It would never do to sail a yacht only 70 feet long 
on the waterline under such dangerous conditions 
as prevailed, and, squaring away, they hastened back 
to the sheltering arm of Sandy Hook. 

38 Captain Nathaniel Brown Palmer 

Whether the sealers worked on the beaches or 
the outlying rocks, they were continuously drenched 
by the spray and the spoondrift and the solid water 
into which they leaped; and by the sleet that fell 
upon and coated them with ice. They were chilled 
by the piercing gales. They often slipped and fell 
on the rocks and were painfully bruised. They were 
sometimes bitten by the seals and sometimes thrown 
headlong by a rush of the herd they were trying to 
kill. Now and then, a boat's crew was overturned 
by a curling wave and her crew were lost. Now and 
then a man was killed by a fall over a precipice. 

When at nightfall they returned in their water- 
soaked clothing to the ship there was no fire in 
either the cabin or the forecastle by which they 
could warm their chilled bodies. But the records 
show that the men of the sealing crews were all 
so eager to take part in the work that the cooks 
and cabin boys left their easy berths on the ships 
to go afloat in the whaleboats; and the only grum- 
bling heard came from the man who was necessarily 
left on each vessel as keeper. 

There is another record which says that the 
wealth of Stonington is founded on the accumula- 
tions made by those sealers. What would those 
sailors of the sail who were thus developing a 
wealthy community as well as harvesting a fortune 
each for himself — what would they say if they 
could return and meet the men who now organize 
labor monopolies by which to limit the production 

Learning the Course to the South Shetlands 39 

of the most skilled to that of the weaklings and 

Nearly all of the catch of the Stonington men, 
in 1 820-1 82 1, was secured by companies who landed 
and made camps on the islands close to the rook- 
eries. By day they killed and skinned as many 
seals as they could, the average day's work being 
fifty skins. Night and morning they cooked the 
food brought to them from the ships by means of 
fires made of seal fat — Eskimo fashion — and they 
slept on boards laid for floors in the canvas-and- 
board huts in which they lived. These men were 
really more comfortable than those who lived 
aboard ship, for they had fires in their huts by 
which they could get warm. The smoke of the 
burning fat made them all as black as Negroes but 
that was a matter over which they cracked many 
a joke. 

A part of the work of curing the skins, as every 
trapper will recognize, was cleaning the fat from 
the flesh side. This was done as tanners do such 
work — by shaving the blubber off with a "beaming 
knife" — a back-breaking job. 

Because some who read this biography are sure 
to be shocked by what they will call the merciless 
slaughter which exterminated the seal herds, it seems 
needful to say first that the slaughter was not cruel. 
The seals were killed by a single blow on the head, 
for the skull was thin and easily crushed in. Death 
was instantaneous. As for the extermination of 

40 Captain Nathaniel Brown Palmer 

the herds the blame should be placed upon the state 
of civilization then prevailing and not on the seal- 
ers. The islands where the seals were found might 
have been preserved, as Lobos Island was preserved 
at the mouth of the River Plate, and as the Prib- 
alov Islands of Alaska are now preserved; but it 
was the business of government — any government 
willing to do the work — to preserve the herds at 
the Shetlands and elsewhere and not the business 
of the sealers. As long as no nation was sufficiently 
civilized to do this work, each sealer was obliged 
to take as many as possible while there were any 
to take. It was a free-for-all contest and the men 
who were most successful are now memorable for 
their courage and prowess. 

The Hersilia, in the voyage which began in 1819, 
had salt for only 10,000 skins — 600 bushels. The 
skins of young bachelor seals were therefore se- 
lected. When the salt had all been used the crew 
made all sail for home and kept the little brig 
traveling. In Stonington the skins sold for $2 each, 
or $20,000 for the cargo, say eight times the cost 
of the entire outfit. Young Nat's share of the cargo 
was probably one in 35, or say 280 skins which 
sold for $560. For that day the pay of the young 
man for this voyage, lasting eight or nine months, 
was considered something memorable. 

When the Hersilia had discharged her cargo at 
Stonington the owners at once began fitting out 
another expedition for a voyage to the newly dis- 

Learning the Course to the South Shetlands 41 

covered rookeries. It was certain that the Espirito 
Santo would return there, and that many other 
sealers would also go; for it was impossible to keep 
secret the fact that a new seal island had been found, 
and even its location was sure to become public 

Because the wit and knowledge of the young sec- 
ond mate had carried the Hersilia to the new rook- 
eries, it was a matter of course that he should have 
a position in this second expedition which would 
accord with his abilities; in short that he would be 
promoted. In the usual course a young man in his 
place would have been made a first mate, but when 
he sailed from Stonington, the next time, he was 
captain of a most important vessel, and the success 
of the expedition was to depend to a large extent 
upon his work. 



WHEN the Hersilia returned to Stonlngton, 
bringing a story of new seal islands 
discovered near the place where the 
mythical Auroras were supposed to lie, and vAth 
10,000 prime seal skins to prove the tale, she created 
intense excitement along all the New England shore. 
The fact that the furs were of unusual beauty was 
almost as interesting as the statements regarding 
the number of seals among the fslands. 

Straightway, the owners of suitable vessels at 
Salem, Boston, Nantucket, New Haven and New 
York began to fit out expeditions to compete with 
Stonington for the furs on the new group; while 
the owners of Stonington vessels not only refitted 
the Hersilia but they added several others and then 
proceeded to build one especially for the coming 
season. In all five brigs and two schooners were 
provided, besides a sloop which was constructed 
for the work. The names of the vessels were: 
brigs, Hersilia, Frederick, Catharine, Emaline, 
and Clothier; schooners Express and Free Gift. The 
sloop was built for a tender or waiter-in-general 


Master of a Tiny Tender 43 

for the other vessels, and, not without reason, she 
was named Hero. 

In several respects the sloop was a most in- 
teresting vessel. An old document shows that she 
was built at Groton, Conn. ; she was owned by 
W. A. Fanning and Elisha Faxon, both of Stoning- 
ton, and she measured 44 40/95 tons, *'as per 
register granted at New London the twenty-fifth 
day of July, 1820." 

The dimensions of the Hero other than her ton- 
nage have been lost, but if the rule under which 
she was measured for tonnage be considered in 
connection with the purpose for which she was built, 
it appears that she was not to exceed fifty feet long 
on deck by sixteen or seventeen wide and six or 
seven deep. That she was broad and shallow in 
proportion to her length is certain, first, because 
that was then the favorite model of all American 
builders, and next because a shoal draft was neces- 
sary in a vessel that was to be used for exploring 
the uncharted islands to which she was bound. 

By comparing her dimensions with those of the 
sloops which were then employed by the hundred 
on the Hudson River one may get a better idea of 
just how small she was for the voyage to a region 
300 miles below Cape Horn. For some of the 
Hudson River sloops were of three and even four 
times her tonnage although they were designed for 
inland water traffic. For another comparison it 
may be noted that she was less than half as long 

44 Captain Nathaniel Brown Palmer 

as the yachts which competed for the Americans 
cup in July, 1920. Ordinarily she spread two or 
three sails to the wind, a big mainsail and one or 
two jibs; but when the wind was fair she set a 
great squaresail. Because of the relative size of 
the mainsail the sloop rig is much harder to handle 
in heavy weather than a schooner of the same size 
of hull. It was for this reason that the tender of 
the Wilkes exploring expedition was built with two 

As to the shape of the Heroes hull it is to be noted 
that while one which is broad and shallow is ad- 
mirably adapted for sheltered and smooth waters 
it is dangerous on the open sea. For, if a broad 
hull fifty feet long falls off from a storm wind 
until she is broadside to it, and is rolling in the 
trough of the sea, a curling wave is likely to hit her 
under the quarter as she rolls and turn her bottom 
up instantly. The records show that even experi- 
enced Yankee crews have been thus imprisoned and 

The most important work for which the Hero 
was designed was exploring the island group. She 
was to sail here and there along the coasts and 
among the reefs to search for the rookeries sure 
to be found there; and this work would be all the 
more important because many competing vessels 
were to go to the South Shetlands during the ensuing 

s c 

Oh 0* 

Master of a Tiny Tender 45 

Whaleboats might have been used for the ex- 
plorations, and they were so used by other vessels 
of the fleets; but the Stonington men had seen that 
the group was more than 200 miles long and that 
the coast line would measure thousands of miles 
In extent. Something larger and more seaworthy 
than a rowboat, and yet smaller and handier than 
the schooners, was needed — a vessel, in short, that 
could enter all sorts of harbors and skim all sorts 
of beaches and reefs. 

Because of the character of the work the Hero 
was to do and because of the vile weather In which 
It was to be done, a master was needed who was 
at once venturesome, courageous, and withall able 
to handle a sloop rig; and young Nat Palmer was 
the man chosen to fill It. His mate was named 
Phlneas Wilcox. 

Carlyle, In one of his essays on the Vikings, notes 
that they made their voyages In vessels which car- 
ried them low down In "the moaning brine," and 
that such voyages gave them a superior training. 
The little sloop Hero, with her gunwale a foot 
out of water when In port, and her lee rail burled 
in the froth when at sea, afforded just such a school 
for Captain Nat Palmer. BjornI, who sailed from 
Jutland to go to Greenland to drink Christmas ale 
with his father, and while on the way was driven 
by storms to the coast of America — BjornI was 
trained in no better school, and he showed no more 

46 Captain Nathaniel Brown Palmer 

courage than the boyish sailor of the sail who com- 
manded a smaller vessel among the reefs and ice- 
floes 300 miles below Cape Horn. 

The Stonington records contain some interesting 
data concerning the fleet of 1820-182 1. For ex- 
ample, upon a worn and ragged slip of paper is 
written a list of supplies, as follows: 

Memorandum Sloop Hero. 

Two composition rudder braces and two do. 
pintals for hanging rudder with the bolts and nails 
for do. 

200 sheets, half 18 oz. half 20 oz. Best London 

150 2 inch composition nails for sheathing 

150 I inch composition do for coppering. 

300 Best smoothing sheeting paper. 

7 Bolts best Russia duck 6 ditto Bear Rowans. 

A sheet or charts of So. America from the 
Equator to the highest South Latitude beyond 
Cape Horn. These can be got at Patton's. A 
sheet of charts of all the Atlantic Ocean. 

To a sailor the fact that spare pintals and rudder 
braces and sheathing copper were carried is most 
Interesting. For these extras show that the sloop 
was expected to strike on some reef among the 
islands, and so wreck the rudder and break in the 

Master of a Tiny Tender 47 

bottom planks — after which, however, she was to 
be hauled off and repaired. They would never give 
up the sloop. 

The same paper carries a list of the supplies pro- 
vided for two of the brigs and from it we obtain 
an Idea of what all the crews had to eat and drink, 
as follows: 

60 hhds. Navy Bread 

60 bbl. Mess Beef 

40 bbl. Mess Prime Pork 

4 bbl. white Beans 

4 do. Peas 

4 do. Vinegar 

10 qt. Mustard 

2 gr. chest Campay tea 

30 do. Pepper 

4^ bbl. Rum 

4 bbl. Gin 

6 tt. Codfish 

2 boxes dip Candles 

1 do. Sperm to be divided 

2 boxes Soap 

8 bbl. kiln dried Corn Meal 

4 bbl. Corn 

50 bushels potatoes 

3 bbl. dried apples 
Sy2 Rice 

12 bbl. Flour 
220 tt. Coffee 

48 Captain Nathaniel Brown Palmer 

Then follows a long list of ship stores which 
Included lumber, spikes, paint, spare oars (forty 
that were i6 feet long and twelve that were 
from 21 to 24 feet) ; tools, boat anchors, tar, whale 
line, fish lines, guns and ammunition. When all 
these stores had been written down the maker of 
the memorandum returned to the kind of supplies 
found at the head of the list and added these : 

5 doz. Fowls 
5>4 bbl. Sugar 
2y2 bbl. Rum 

2j^ bbl. Teneriffe Wine. 

The implements needed In taking the seals and 
preparing the skins were these: 

200 hoop poles 

8 doz. skinning knives 

6 doz. steels for do. 

2^ doz. skinning knives to be made by R. 

^ doz. beaming knives to be made by do. 

The hoop poles were cut from hickory saplings 
and were perhaps ten feet long and say an inch or 
more in diameter at the small end. Each pole 
afforded two clubs with which the seals were knocked 
in the head. In later years of the fishery the poles 
were cut up at home and each end was protected 
with an iron ring, because, in the hurry and excite- 
ment of the killing, the men frequently missed a seal 
and struck a rock instead, thus rapidly wearing the 

Master of a Tiny Tender 49 

clubs to a frazzle. Later still (1880) the sealers 
used rifles because the seals were so wild it was im- 
possible to take them with clubs. 

Perhaps the lists of food supplies should receive 
further attention — at least to note that the men had 
plenty to eat and drink. In referring to the food 
supplies of the sealer Neptune, which was at the 
Falklands in 1797, the supercargo, Eben Townsend, 
wrote : 

"A sealing crew want a good stock of bread, 
molasses and peas for coffee, and they can get along 
with little beef and pork; but to be out of bread, 
or molasses for sweetening their coffee, is very un- 
comfortable. They get very much attached to what 
they call slops, which is tea and coffee, in this cold, 
uncheerful country." To this he adds : "They cook 
the haslet [heart and liver of the seal], with the fat 
of the seal both for fuel and fat, and it tastes very 
much like a hog's haslet." 

Of course the numerous birds and their eggs were 
used as food, and the sealers caught many fish. 
That the Stonington fleet was well supplied with 
material for "slops" and the much-needed sweeten- 
ing is apparent. They also had a plenty of flour 
and dried apples for duff. As a matter of fact, 
American ship owners as a class always made boast 
of the amounts of food supplied to the seamen. The 
crews were required to work hard, but never on 
empty or half-filled stomachs. The exceptions to 

50 Captain Nathaniel Brown Palmer 

this rule have been so often described by unfriendly 
writers that the usual conditions found on American 
ships have been obscured. American sailors were 
always fed better and were really more comfortable 
than those on any other ships afloat. 



THE log book of the Hero, while under the 
command of Captain Palmer during his 
second voyage to the South Shetlands, is 
a most interesting and valuable historical document 
because the little vessel was then sent on an expedi- 
tion to look for seals during which a long stretch 
of the Antarctic Continent was explored for the 
first time — the coast which now bears the name of 
Palmer Land. The ordinary log book used by 
whalers and sealers, in those days, consisted of a few 
hundred large sheets of soft writing paper folded 
once, sewed with a stitch or two of sail twine to 
form a book, which was then bound with a piece of 
canvas cut from an old sail. The log of the Hero 
was a blank book manufactured for the purpose. 
It was something like an old-fashioned diary. The 
leaves of this book are made of a soft writing paper, 
each being 8x13 inches large. Ruled spaces at the 
top of each page are provided in which to write the 
date, the course made by the ship, the character of 
the weather and the latitude and the longitude, each 
as determined by observation and by dead reckon- 
ing. Below these ruled spaces were ruled lines which 


52 Captain Nathaniel Brown Palmer 

were numbered for each hour of the day and on 
these lines were to be written whatever notes the 
captain or his mates might wish to make. 

On the first page of the cover (a stout, flexible 
paper) is a printed title, with a picture of an old- 
fashioned ship under all plain sail. Below that is 
an advertisement of the publisher. The whole title 
is as follows : 


Seaman's Journal 

Being An 

Easy and Correct Method 


Keeping the Daily Reckoning 


During the Course of Her Voyage. 

The advertisement announces that "J. Desnoues, 
printer, 1 1 Nassau Street," Issued the volume and 
that It was "sold by Samuel A. Burtus, at his Book 
Store and Lottery Office, No. 19 Peck Slip, corner 
of Water Street," New York. 

To prestrve this book during the voyage. Captain 
Nat covered It with canvas, neatly hemmed and 
sewed on. Inside of the back of this canvas cover 
is a pen-and-ink sketch of a two-masted schooner, 
carrying all plain sail. Including a square fore top- 
sail and topgallant sail, In a spanking breeze — a 
live picture In spite of the material upon which it 
was drawn. One may suppose that the boyish cap- 

Cruising Among the South Shetlands 53 

tain drew it with the schooner Express, of which it 
is a picture, under his eye at sea. 

The first entry in the log, dated August i, 1820, 
reads : 

"Commences with fair weather with breeze from 
W S W. At 6 P M made Block Island. Bore by 
compass N N W ^ W distant about 4 leagues from 
which I take my departure. Course S E by E." 

The writing is small, ornate and easily read, save 
where the ink has faded or has been worn away by 
handling. The spelling is with rare exceptions cor- 
rect and the few mistakes are manifestly due to in- 
advertence rather than ignorance. 

Ships' logs are always monotonous records of 
weather, speed, course made, and so on, and the 
Hero's is no exception in this respect during the pas- 
sage to the Falkland Islands. But it may be noted 
that while all the vessels of the fleet had sailed to- 
gether from Stonington, only the Hersilia and the 
Express were in view of the Hero on the 5th of 
August. Each was making the best speed possible 
for the destination, regardless of what the others 
might do. After the 5th the Hersilia disappeared, 
but the schooner Express and the Hero were in 
company all the way to the first port. 

The entry dated August 6 says that the weather 
was ''dark and glowery," but the young captain "set 
squaresail," after which a heave of the log showed 
that the sloop was making eight knots. That day's 

54 Captain Nathaniel Brown Palmer 

run — from noon of the 6th to noon of the 7th — 
was 160 sea miles. The best day's run of the pas- 
sage was 175 sea miles, which was a notable achieve- 
ment for a fifty-foot boat. 

On October 17, 1820, the entry reads: 

^'Commences with fresh gales from S West and 
clear weather. At ^ past i made the land bearing 
S E & S W. Stood in for it. At 4 P M bore away 
before the wind, running alongshore the whole 
night. At 6 A M made the Volunteer Rocks. At 
10 anchored in Berkeley Sound. Found there two 
shallops belonging to ship G. Knox. The Express 
in company." 

Berkeley Sound is in the northeast corner of the 
Falkland Islands. From this anchorage the Hero 
and the Express worked west along the north coasts 
of the group, gathering fresh meat, wild fowl and 
so on, for several days. Other vessels of the fleet 
were met on the way. On October 27, at 4 P. M., 

"Got under weigh for Staten Island. Soon after 
we were boarded by a boat from the Catharine who 
informed us that one of her boats had upset, and 
that Perry, the officer, and another had drowned — 
that two men were left hanging to the boat. Took 
the boat in tow to look for them. At 8 being down 
almost to Kidney Island, the boat left us." 

The loss of four men, thus briefly mentioned, in- 
dicates the danger of the work in which the sealers 

Cruising Among the South Shetlands 55 

were engaged. For the lost boat had been turned 
over when at sea and it had then gone adrift where 
the other boat's crew and the men of the Hero 
were unable to find it. 

The Hero with the Express entered Woodward 
Harbor, Staten Island, on October 31. Several 
days were spent in gathering fuel and exploring the 
coast. Plenty of eggs were found, *'but all were 
spoilt." Meantime "got a bulkhead chimney built 
in the caboose." The sloop's rigging was carefully 
overhauled to see that every part was fit to withstand 
the hurricane blasts of the far South. One day the 
sloop's crew "went down the harbor sealing and 
got seven." 

The two vessels left for the Shetlands on Novem- 
ber 5. "Heavy gales, rain, fog and snow" were 
encountered on the way down, but on the 8th the 
weather was pleasant and the wind fair; so all hands 
were "employed grinding knives" ready for skin- 
ning the seals. 

On the 9th the log says "we are anxiously look- 
ing for land. Plenty of penguins, whales and gulls 
about us." They saw Smith Island, the next day, 
and squared away for a harbor in Ragged Island, 
which lies off the southwest coast oT Livingston, 
(Powell's chart), but vile weather kept them at 
sea until the 1 2th when this entry appears : 

"Commences with thick weather, fresh breeze N 
by E. At 4 P M saw Castle Rock. Stood in for 
Ragged Island. At 8, being in the mouth of the 

S6 Captain Nathaniel Brown Palmer 

harbor, we were boarded by a boat from the 
Hersilia, Capt. Sheffield. He Informed us that he 
had been In 12 days, and that the Frederick and 
Free Gift, Captains Pendleton and Dunbar, were In 
a harbor on the opposite side of the strait. At 10 
came to alongside the Hersilia. Let go the sheet 
anchor in four fathoms of water." 

Captain Palmer then called away a boat and 
crossed to President Harbor, where the vessels 
mentioned were at anchor. In order to report to 
Captain Benjamin Pendleton, the commodore of the 
fleet. While there he learned that there were "no 
seals up" — the season was not yet open. 

The next day the Hersilia, the Express and the 
Hero were all anchored in President Harbor. 
From subsequent entries It appears that the vessels 
were taken to this harbor because a great stony 
beach, to which the seals were sure to come, was to 
be found near the port. Lumber and sails were 
landed with which to erect shacks for the men to live 
in when working the rookeries. While this work 
was in hand, fog with rain and snow commonly pre- 
vailed, but when a pleasant day finally did come the 
log of the Hero notes that her captain and Captain 
Dunbar went "shooting gulls, chickens, &c. with 
great success," after which "Capt. Dunbar with Mr. 
Pendleton dined with us." 

Nearly all the furs taken by the Stonington fleet 
in 1 820-1 82 1 were secured by men who built camps 

Cruising Among the South Shetlands 57 

near large rookeries, and from day to day killed 
as many seals as they could by hard work handle. 
The killing did not frighten the seals that remained 
undisturbed meantime. It was the custom to "cut 
out of the herd" a "bunch" (if one may use the 
cowboy terms) and drive them slowly up the slope 
of the beach — slowly because undue haste heated the 
seals and injured the fur — and then, when a few 
rods from the main herd, knock them down with 

The seals thus segregated did, sometimes, make 
a dash for the sea and sailors who tried to stop 
them were often thrown violently on the wet rocks. 
Occasionally a man has been killed in that way. But 
the main herd was never seriously alarmed by such 
a flight, and the slaughter was continued from day 
to day until the valuable animals had all been 

As the record shows the rookery adjoining the 
camp on President Harbor was the resort of a great 
herd, but Commodore Pendleton perceived, even 
before the seals hauled out, that it would not furnish 
enough skins for his entire fleet, and he therefore 
ordered Captain Nat to go in search of others. 
The Hero sailed on this exploring expedition at 2 
o'clock in the afternoon of November 15, and, as 
the log says "stood over for Deception, course E 
for the north head. ... At 8 being close in with 
the land," tacked off shore for the night. "Middle 
part thick snow storm. At 12 two-reefed the main- 

58 Captain Nathaniel Brown Palmer 

sail" and "tacked to the East. At 5 made the land 
and stood along to southard and eastard. Saw 
what we thought to be a harbor. Lowered down 
the boat and examined It but were disappointed. 
Stood along the southard. Saw an opening — stood 
in — found it to be a very spacious harbor with very 
deep water — 50 and 60 fathoms. Got out the boat 
to sound," and "found anchorage about a mile and 
a half from the mouth. At 1 1 we came to in 18 
fathoms off the mouth of a lagoon. Went on shore 
and got some eggs. Ends with thick weather and 

That is to say this little sloop was adrift through- 
out the night upon an unexplored sea. A snow 
storm that shut off the view in all directions pre- 
vailed and the wind was so heavy that the sail was 
reefed. It was reasonable to expect that reefs were 
to be encountered down wind and icebergs and floes 
were adrift on all sides. But neither the discomforts 
nor the dangers gave the crew of the Hero a 
moment's worry. 

The harbor in Deception Island Into which the 
sloop sailed is referred to many times in the log 
of the Hero under the name of Port William, but 
it was later named Yankee Harbor and it Is so 
called now. The Island was named Deception dur- 
ing the previous voyage and the name was descrip- 
tive because, as seen from all sides but one, it 
seemed to be a solid cone about seven miles in 
diameter and rising to height of from four to six 

Cruising Among the South Shetlands 59 

hundred feet above the sea. When viewed from 
the southeast, however, the entrance which the log 
mentions was to be seen; and on sailing in, a circular 
harbor about five miles in diameter was discovered. 
The island was therefore manifestly the top of a 
volcano, the crater of which, five miles in diameter, 
formed the harbor. 

Because this harbor afforded a perfect shelter it 
was made the port of refuge of five of the Stonlng- 
ton fleet. A year later it was used by another sealing 
fleet, and later still it was used by two British sur- 
veying expeditions. The descriptions which have 
been published by various captains show that it was 
a most interesting place. Thus one captain thought 
the entrance was 200 feet wide and another called 
it a cable's length. In the entrance the water was 
seven fathoms deep ; at the deepest point, which was 
the center of the harbor, it was 97. The beaches 
all around the interior were narrow. Smoke arose 
continually from small vents around the rim, show- 
ing that the volcano was by no means dead. At 
several points on the beaches hot springs boiled forth 
and one on the northeast side of the crater had 
such a flow that the water of the bay was warmed 
for a space of several boat-lengths from the beach; 
and this, too, although a glacier rested but a few 
rods away. It was possible to throw a piece of ice 
from this glacier into water hot enough to boil eggs. 
The warm water space was the resort of innumer- 
able birds, especially penguins, which seemed to 

6o Captain Nathaniel Brown Palmer 

enjoy the warmth very much. Of course the sailors 
found bathing there delightful. 

Findlay's "Sailing Directions" says that "a species 
of coal was found" by the British warship Chanti- 
cleer, "which burnt very well." 

As noted, five of the Stonington fleet came to 
Yankee Harbor. This move was hastened because 
the brig Frederick, the flagship of the fleet, while 
lying in President Harbor, was driven from her 
anchors by a heavy storm and narrowly escaped 
going on the beach. 

After exploring Yankee Harbor, the Hero cruised 
to the north around Livingston Island and found 
several rookeries. One of the memorable incidents 
of the cruise after leaving Yankee Harbor was the 
result of an effort to run through a strait. The 
Hero grounded on an unseen ledge, but because the 
venture was made when the tide was rising she soon 
floated clear. Then, while the captain was making 
some needed repairs, he observed a whale head 
boldly into the strait, and by watching the course it 
followed he learned the lay of the channel. 

"Where a whale can go I can follow," he re- 
marked, and he then sailed through, but these words 
are not found in the log. Note of them was made 
at Stonington. 

Having located enough beaches to keep all hands 
busy, the Hero returned to the fleet, that was then 
in President Harbor, and she was lying there when 
the storm almost wrecked the Frederick. She then 

Cruising Among the South Shetlands 6i 

went with the fleet to Yankee Harbor (November 
24), and thereafter was employed carrying supplies 
from the ships to the camp at President Harbor 
and skins from the harbor to the ships. 

In the first of these trips as a freighter, the Hero 
arrived off President Harbor at 10 o'clock in the 
morning of November 26, and found 465 skins 
ready for transportation to Yankee Harbor, the 
first that had been secured there. The herd was 
just beginning to arrive at these islands, and the 
date was just a month later than the first arrivals 
at the Falklands, showing that the vast herd mi- 
grated from the north to these breeding grounds. 

The number of skins awaiting transportation at 
subsequent trips is not mentioned until that made 
on December 3d when the number was 905. On 
the next trip — she arrived off the camp on the 7th 
— the number was 10,000. These skins, when car- 
ried to the vessels in Yankee Harbor, were dis- 
charged from the sloop between the hours of 7 
P, M. and midnight. As soon as the skins were out 
the Hero sailed once more for President Harbor, 
regardless of the fact that her crew had been doing 
a long hard job. 

Meantime the log notes that other vessels were 
passing to and fro among the islands. On December 
9 a ship and two shallops came to Yankee Harbor. 
On the 1 6th the Emaline and the Catharine came. 
They brought skins, taken on the north side of Liv- 
ingston Island. The brig Clothier had been with 

62 Captain Nathaniel Brown Palmer 

them but a heavy gale, which they had survived, 
had driven her on the rocks. The wreck was to be 
seen there many years later. It may yet be visible. 

On the whole the log shows that while Captain 
Palmer and the sloop's crew now had no part in 
the work of killing the seals, they were engaged in 
loading the skins from the time they arrived off 
any one of the camps (for others were established) 
until all were on board. Then they hoisted anchor 
and made sail for Yankee Harbor, standing watch 
and watch while on the way. At the harbor they 
helped discharge the skins on board one of the 
vessels there, took on supplies for the camp, and 
then made sail back to one of the camps. They 
took such sleep as they had to have while standing 
watch and watch between destinations. And they 
boasted of their ability to work thus. It was char- 
acteristic of the Yankee sailor of the sail to brag, 
and they all had something to brag about; but none 
made good in quite the manner of the sealers. 

The fact that the Heroes crew worked for an 
extraordinary number of hours every day is a matter 
of especial interest in this tale of the sea. When 
opportunity to sleep was offered them they were 
exceedingly glad to turn into their bunks without an 
instant's delay. So a time came when the young 
captain was so tired at the end of his day's work 
that even the small task of writing up the log in 
formal fashion seemed too great; and at the same 
time it seemed really needless to do so. For the 

Cruising Among the South Shetlands 63 

entries, while the Hero was serving as freighter 
between President Harbor and Yankee Harbor, 
were almost precisely alike. For a time Captain 
Nat, being tired, wrote such entries as the following : 

"Tuesday, December 19th, 1820 
"Commences pleasant strong gales from S W 

"Wednesday, December 20th. 
"Commences moderate light breeze from south." 

On Christmas day the entry made was: 

"Monday 25th 
"Commences with heavy gales from N E with 

Thereafter each day's entry ran in similar fashion 
until February 19th, when he wrote: 

"Friday 19th." 

That and nothing more. Then for three days 
there was no entry whatever, but on the fourth day 
he began to write up the log in shipshape fashion 
once more, because on that day he cleared the har- 
bor and sailed for home. 

And yet, during this interval of slack log writing 
Captain Palmer had been ordered to go a second 
time in search of other seal islands and while he 
was thus engaged he had discovered that part of 
the Antarctic Continent to which his name was 
given, and he cruised along the coast to 68 degrees 
south latitude — or more than 200 miles from 
Yankee Harbor. 



TWO accounts of the incidents which led to 
the sending of the Hero on an exploring 
expedition along the coast of the Antarctic 
Continent have been printed. One is to be found 
In Edmund Fannlng's "Voyages Round the World," 
and the other in "Stonlngton Antarctic Explorers," 
by Edwin Swift Balch. Fanning says (p. 435) that 
"from Captain Pendleton's report, as rendered^' 
on the return of the fleet to Stonlngton, "it appeared 
that while the fleet lay at anchor in Yankee Harbor, 
Deception Island, during the season of 1820-21, 
being on the lookout from an elevated station, on 
the mountains of the island, during a very clear day, 
he had discovered mountains (one a volcano) in 
the south. This is what is now known by the name 
of Palmer Land." 

In the other account it is said that young Palmer 
first saw the land and the captain's niece, still living, 
remembers hearing him say definitely that he thus 
saw the land. Some writers have thought the two 
accounts contradictory, but they are not necessarily 
so. The facts In the case seem to be as follows : 

The rookery at President Harbor was being 

Exploring the Antarctic Coast 6^ 

depleted rapidly. The decrease naturally led all the 
captains of the vessels In Yankee Harbor to talk 
about a search for another rookery, and this search 
seemed to be all the more needed, as time passed 
and competing vessels gathered the skins from other 
known rookeries. All the other known rookeries 
were. In fact, occupied by sealers. It was therefore 
decided that Captain Palmer should make another 
cruise with the Hero. It was for such work that the 
sloop had been brought. 

Before going on such a cruise it was natural that 
Palmer should go up to the highest point on the wall 
of the old crater, at a time when the air was per- 
fectly clear. In order to see If any other Islands were 
visible. It was also natural that Captain Pendleton 
should go. The direct statement that the young 
captain went Is to be believed because he was known 
to be unusually farslghted. Throughout his life he 
was able to distinguish objects at much greater dis- 
tances than ordinary seamen. At the same time 
there is no reason to doubt the statement that 
Pendleton went. It Is easy to believe that both 
Pendleton and Palmer went together, and when 
Pendleton made his report at Stonlngton he Inad- 
vertently omitted to mention that Palmer went with 

On reaching the high point on Deception Island 
the southern horizon was examined — the southern 
because the fleet had been working around all the 
islands at the north. So the loom of land was seen 

66 Captain Nathaniel Brown Palmer 

in the far south with what looked like an active 
volcano, and the Hero was thereupon ordered to 
sail away and learn if any seals were to be found 

Copies of two entries in the log of Captain 
Pendleton's brig Frederick are among the records 
now to be found at Stonington. They are as fol- 
lows : 

"Jan'y 14, 1821. Sloop Hero, Capt. N. B. 
Palmer, sailed to eastward to look for more Is'ds." 

''Jan'y 28th, /21. 6 A M the sloop came in after 
examining northeast and southwest to their satisfac- 
tion. Found none." 

It was therefore on January 14 that Captain 
Palmer sailed from Yankee Harbor on the voyage 
which was to place him beside Columbus in so far 
as he and Columbus were the only known men who 
have discovered continents ; for the name of the man 
who discovered Australia is not known. 

To appreciate the dangers of the voyage upon 
which the captain was bound it is only needful to 
recall the fact that he was under orders to explore 
a region, to the east as well as the south, which had 
never been visited by men; that he was to work his 
way among floating fields of ice and uncharted reefs; 
that hurricane squalls with blinding snows were sure 
to overtake him at frequent intervals, and that if 
the Hero were pinched between icefloes or stranded 
on the rocks there was no hope of a rescuing party 

Exploring the Antarctic Coast S7 

ever finding the wreck. But Palmer and his men 
faced the dangers with insouciant minds and even 
with pleasure. They were thrilled with a feeling 
that is now lost because there is but little of the 
world left to explore. 

Of this remarkable expedition it appears that no 
account was ever written by a member of the Heroes 
crew; or if one was so written in the back of the 
log book, as has been surmised, it was torn out 
and destroyed. But on his return to Yankee Har- 
bor, Captain Palmer told the commodore and other 
captains what had occurred. After he returned 
home he also related his story to his family and 
friends. In later years, when he was in command 
of the clipper Howqua, in Hong Kong, China, he 
was invited to tell the story to Admiral Sir John 
Francis Austin, at the American consulate; for 
the admiral had observed that the arm-chair 
geographers of Europe were disposed to ignore 
Palmer's exploration and with a sailor's love of fair 
play he asked the captain for the facts in the case. 

The various accounts which the captain thus gave 
were in several instances written down by those who 
heard them. Consul Frederick T. Bush, of Hong 
Kong, wrote what he heard, and his version was 
later printed in a New London paper. Edmund 
Fanning wrote the story as he gathered it from 
Commodore Pendleton after the expedition re- 
turned home. When, beginning in 1828, an effort 
was made to induce Congress to send a naval explor- 

68 Captain Nathaniel Brown Palmer 

ing expedition to the far South and the Pacific (an 
effort which eventually resulted in the Wilkes expe- 
dition), Mr. J. N. Reynolds, an active promoter 
of the movement, gathered and wrote an account 
which he used in his propaganda. This one was 
printed in the Army and Naval Chronicle^ Vol. III. 
Another account appeared in the North American 
Review in 1834. Each of these versions inevitably 
contains some statements not found in the others, 
and the whole have therefore been combined here 
to give the story In as full detail as possible. 

When describing his adventure to Admiral Austin 
the captain said: 

"I pointed the bow of the little craft to south'ard 
and with her wings spread, the mainsail abeam, and 
the jib abreast (on) the opposite bow, she speeded 
on her way like a thing of life and light. With her 
flowing sheet she seemed to enter into the spirit 
which possessed my ambitions, and flew along until 
she brought me into the sight of land not laid down 
on my chart." 

The tops of two mountains were first seen, and 
then lower land, trending away in both directions, 
appeared as the Hero drew near. The highest peak, 
named Mount Hope by explorer Wilkes, was in 
latitude 63° 25' S and longitude 57° 55' west. It 
was a rugged, verdureless land, with bare rocks and 
glaciers mingled every^vhere within view — a most 
desolate region, and yet, as seen when the sun was 

Exploring the Antarctic Coast 69 

shining, with the green waters along shore dotted 
with gleaming ice cakes, and with the air filled with 
thousands of gray and black petrels and white cape 
pigeons, it was strikingly beautiful. 

Fanning's account of what Palmer thus observed 
is as follows : 

"He found it to be an extensive mountainous 
country, more sterile and dismal, if possible, and 
more heavily loaded with ice and snow than the 
South Shetlands; there were sea leopards on its 
shore but no fur seals; the main part of the coast 
was icebound, although it was in the midsummer 
of this hemisphere, and a landing consequently 

So far as the weather was concerned the young 
Captain had much better fortune than he had any 
reason to expect; but the fogs were frequently so 
thick that he was obliged to lay to at midday and 
wait until they thinned away lest he strike the ice or 
a reef. And it was because of the prevailing fog 
that he had one of the most startling experiences 
recorded in the histories of the explorers. 

The Hero, in her return, had left Mount Hope 
on the north point of the mainland astern, late one 
afternoon, when a fog, so dense that the man at 
the tiller could not see the man on lookout at the 
bow, shut her in. She was then hove to in the usual 
course — the sails were arranged so that she would 
make as little headway as possible — and then all 

70 Captain Nathaniel Brown Palmer 

hands settled down with such patience as they could 
summon, to await the coming of the next day. Al- 
though the breeze was light and the sloop drifted 
but slowly before it, the captain and his mate (Mr. 
Phineas Wilcox) kept vigilant watch all night for a 
change in the weather as well as for rocks and ice. 
The men (there were six before the mast) were 
placed on lookout at the bow and waist while the 
officers paced the quarterdeck. 

At 12 o'clock that night Captain Nat came on 
deck to relieve Mate Wilcox. The captain paced 
the deck, as all ship officers do when on watch at 
night, until 12.30 when he struck the sloop's bell 
a single tap. It was a part of the regular routine 
which had been followed ever since Stonington had 
been left astern. 

But when the sound of the ball rang through the 
fog, an answering stroke was heard off one bow 
with a second one off the opposite quarter. 

"The response startled me," said the Captain, 
when relating the story in Hong Kong, "but I soon 
resumed my pace, turned my thoughts homeward 
and applied myself to building castles in the air," 
until one o'clock. Then he "struck two bells that 
were answered" as before. 

"I could not credit my ears," declared the Cap- 
tain. "I thought I was dreaming," because, "save 
for the screeching of the penguins, the albatrosses, 
the pigeons and the Mother Cary chickens, I was 

Exploring the Antarctic Coast 71 

sure no living object was within leagues of the 

The sailors, being more superstitious, believed the 
sounds were of supernatural origin, and even Mate 
Wilcox expressed the same idea when he declared 
the sounds were "tricky." To the sailors the 
sounds were not a little fearsome and to all very 

At 3.30 o'clock the mate came on deck and as- 
serted that he heard human voices. A little later 
the fog suddenly cleared away, when the mystery 
was solved; for a fine frigate was seen off the sloop's 
starboard bow, a sloop of war off the port quarter, 
and a ship's cutter, full-manned and under the com- 
mand of an officer in uniform, was soon seen coming 
to the Hero. 

Meantime Captain Palmer made haste to hoist 
the Stars and Stripes, and the two warships then 
displayed the Russian flag. 

When the cutter arrived beside the sloop the 
officer in command stepped on deck and explained 
how it happened he had come. The two warships, 
he said, had been sent out by the Czar of Russia 
to explore the seas of the far South; and while 
sailing to the westward they had been compelled 
by the fog to lie to. The bell of the sloop had been 
heard on the warships and when the fog had lifted 
the cutter had been ordered to learn what vessel 
it was from which the sound had come. The com- 

72 Captain Nathaniel Brown Palmer 

manding officer, Capt. F. G. von Bellingshausen, 
he continued, presented his compliments and begged 
the pleasure of meeting the captain of the sloop 
in the cabin of His Imperial Majesty's frigate 

"I assented," said Captain Palmer, in his Hong 
Kong narrative of the incident. "I at once entered 
the boat, was laid alongside, mounted to the deck, 
and I was ushered into the presence of the venerable 

The scene as that young Yankee captain entered 
the cabin of the frigate might well be reproduced 
by an artist of talent. For the captain of the frigate 
was seated at a table with a group of his officers, 
all in brilliant uniform, around him, while the young 
sealer, smooth-faced, tall and slender, was dressed 
in a seal-skin coat and boots of his own make, and 
he had a sou'wester on his head. To the naval 
officers the boy certainly was a bizarre figure. But 
when they looked into his far-seeing eyes they per- 
ceived that he was unabashed and fully able to meet 
them as man to man. 

The captain of the frigate (he was made an ad- 
miral on his return home and is so called in the 
various narratives of this incident) arose to greet 
Captain Palmer, shook his hand, ordered a chair 
placed for him and then said: 

"You are welcome, young man. Be seated." 

The conversation which followed was as follows, 
so far as remembered: 

Exploring the Antarctic Coast 73 

"What is your name?'* 

"Nathaniel Palmer." 

"Where you are from?" 

"Stonington, Connecticut, U. S. A." 

"The name of your boat?" 


"What are you doing here?" 

"On a sealing expedition. A fleet from Stoning- 
ton is at work among the islands, here." 

"What islands are those in sight?" 

"The South Shetlands; and if you wish to visit 
any of them in particular it will afford me pleasure 
to be your pilot; for I am well acquainted with 

He also mentioned the harbor where the sealing 
vessels were at anchor and added that water with 
an abundant supply of wildfowl might be obtained 
anywhere among the islands. 

"I thank you," continued the captain, "but pre- 
vious to our being enveloped in the fog we had a 
glimpse of those islands, and concluded we had 
made a discovery; but behold, when the fog lifts, 
to my great surprise, here is an American vessel, 
apparently in as fine order as if it were but yesterday 
she had left the United States; not only this but 
her master is ready to pilot my ships into port, 
where several of his own nation lie at anchor. We 
must surrender the palm of enterprise to you Ameri- 
cans, and content ourselves with following in your 

74 Captain Nathaniel Brown Palmer 

''You flatter me," replied the captain, "but there 
is an immense extent of land still further south; 
and when the fog there is entirely dissipated you 
may have a full view of it from your masthead." 

"How far south have you been?" asked tthe 

Captain Palmer told him the latitude and longi- 
tude of the point at which the Hero turned back 
and described the coast along which she had sailed. 

"Indeed!" exclaimed the Russian. "Then I am 
entirely anticipated in my object." 

He now arose much agitated and begged Captain 
Palmer to produce the Heroes log book and chart. 
Palmer at once sent to the sloop for them. While 
waiting for the messenger to return, breakfast was 
served, with Palmer seated at the side of the Russian 
captain. While they were at the table many ques- 
tions were asked about the seal fishery, the ports 
of the South Shetlands, the hailing port of the seal- 
ing fleet and about the character of the vessels 

The Heroes log and chart arrived while the two 
were yet at the table, and were placed before the 
Russian captain. For a time he examined them 
without saying anything. Then he arose from the 
table and exclaimed. 

"What do I see and what do I hear from a boy 
in his teens? That he is commander of a tiny 
boat of the size of the launch of my frigate, in 
which he has pushed his way to the pole through 

Exploring the Antarctic Coast 75 

storm and Ice; has sought and found the point I, 
in command of one of the best appointed fleets at 
the disposal of my august master, have for three 
long weary years searched day and night for." 

Then, placing his hand on Palmer's head he 
continued : 

"What shall I say to my master? What will he 
think of me? But be that as it may, my grief is 
your joy. Wear your laurels with my sincere 
prayers for your welfare. I name the land you have 
discovered in honor of yourself, noble boy, Palmer 



IN this search for new seal rookeries upon the 
shore of the Antarctic Continent, Captain Pal- 
mer had first crossed a space of open sea that is 
seventy miles wide. This brought him to a north- 
erly extension of the continent on which Is located 
the volcano Mount Hope, visible from Deception 
Island. When there he found the trend of the land 
was, as said, to the southwest and he therefore 
headed In that direction, keeping near the beach so 
that he could see the seals If any were to be found 
there. Bays, fiords and islands were observed along 
the way, and each was carefully examined for fur. 
Numbers of the leopard seal were seen but none of 
any other variety. As soon as he had determined 
that a beach carried no fur seals, Captain Palmer 
sailed on without giving any attention to any other 
feature of it. He was aware that he was coasting 
land never visited by man before, but he did not 
know it was of continental dimensions. In fact, 
the dimensions of the lands he discovered were not 
definitely or even approximately learned until it had 
been explored by Larsen, in 1893; Nordenskjold In 
1903 and Charcot In 1910. 


European Explorers Among the Shetlands 77 

To the young captain the land seemed simply an 
unexplored island of large size, or perhaps a group 
of islands, connected by ice, and so it was supposed 
to be while he lived. Because he was looking for 
seal rookeries and nothing else, the land had no 
further interest after he learned that no seals re- 
sorted to the beaches. 

As his cruise is now recalled, one is prone to 
imagine that he should have made a careful survey 
of the coast line simply because it had never been 
seen by human beings before. But the fact is there 
was no inducement impelling him to do so. For 
the mere discovery of unexplored islands was then 
such an ordinary experience among American sailors 
of the sail that little attention was given to any 
new coast unless it afforded a prospect for profit- 
able exploitation. It is literally true that sighting 
new islands in the Pacific was a common experience 
among American whalers. Captain William Smith, 
who rediscovered the islands first seen by Dirk 
Gherritz, was knighted, but if every Yankee skipper 
who discovered an island theretofore unknown had 
been thus rewarded the American corps of knights 
would have far exceeded the English in number; 
for hundreds of islands, including atols, were found 
and charted by the whalers of that period. The 
coasting of the Antarctic Continent was really less 
interesting to the crew of the Hero than their pre- 
vious cruise among the Shetlands had been, because 
in the Shetlands several rookeries were found. For 

78 Captain Nathaniel Brown Palmer 

these men were all sealers and not surveyors or 

Having cruised for at least 150 miles along the 
new land — the longitude attained was 68 degrees 
south — Captain Palmer came to impenetrable ice 
and turned back. The weather was fairly favor- 
able — no worse than that experienced among the 
Shetlands. To Captain Palmer it did not seem as 
dangerous as it really was. The fact that he had 
sailed more than 200 miles from his friends in 
Yankee Harbor, and that any disaster to the sloop 
when far away would have left him and his crew 
to perish miserably did not impress him. 

In his work on exploration in the far South, en- 
titled "Antarctica," Edwin Swift Balch writes as 
follows (p. 94), about the work of Captain 
Palmer : 

"The account by Fanning of Palmer's first two 
voyages and the chart and memoir of 1822 of 
George Powell make it fairly certain: — i, that 
Palmer was probably the discoverer and certainly 
the first explorer of the lands lying south of Brans- 
field Strait and extending for some two hundred 
and fifty kilometers between about 57° 50' and 62° 
20' west longitude, that is, of the northern coasts 
of West Antarctica from Liege Island to Joinville 
Island both inclusive: — 2, that Palmer discovered 
the northern end of Gerlache Strait, which he recog- 
nized was a strait and not a bay as subsequently 

European Explorers Among the Shetlands 79 

charted: — 3, that Palmer discovered the strait or 
bay since called Orleans Channel: — 4, that Palmer 
recognized that these lands were perhaps a chain 
of islands: — 5, that this coast or these islands were 
christened Palmer Land and that they were so first 
charted in England, France and America.'* 

A copy of Powell's Chart is printed In connection 
with this quotation. The title of the chart is: 
"Chart of South Shetland, including Coronation 
Island, &c., from the Exploration of the Sloop Dove 
in the years 1821 and 1822. George Powell, Com- 
mander of the same. Published by R. H. Laurie, 
Chart Seller to the Admiralty, &c., &c.. No. 53 
Fleet Street, London, Nov'r ist, 1822." A mem- 
oir, written by Powell, accompanied the chart. In 
this Captain Powell said (quoted by Balch) : 

"Of the land to the southward, called Palmer 
Land, very little can be said, as it does not appear 
to be sufficiently explored; but it has been described 
as very high and covered with snow, with inlets 
forming straits which may probably separate the 
land, and constitute a range of islands similar to 
those of South Shetland; at least, such Is the ap- 
pearance of the northern side, which alone has been 

Powell's chart Is of special Interest here because 
In later years Palmer's work as an explorer was 
either wholly ignored by British geographers or 
it was discredited. For example Findlay's "Sailing 

8o Captain Nathaniel Brown Palmer 

Directions" for the South Atlantic (issued in 1883), 
a standard work for the use of shipmasters, gives 
several pages to descriptions of the South Shetlands 
and the adjacent coast, but makes no mention of 
Palmer or Palmer Land. He does mention the 
American sealers, however — as follows: 

"Several United States vessels have visited South 
Shetland, and an American account states that some 
of the harbours are very good, vessels in them 
being landlocked. . . . Capt. Dan W. Clark, of 
the ship Hersilia (an American), reported that 
he penetrated to the 66th degree of latitude, where 
he observed lands stretching further to the south, 
the extremities of which he could not ascertain." 

If this quotation is considered in connection with 
the actual explorations of the region made by the 
men from Stonington, the extent of Findlay's knowl- 
edge of the region will be fully comprehended. 

To Illustrate still further the former attitude of 
the British geographers it seems advisable to quote 
an essay on Antarctic exploration which was written 
by Major General A. W. Greely for the American 
Geographic Magazine (March, 19 12), in which 
the following appeared: 

"Dr. Hugh Robert Hill in his generally accurate 
and fair-minded 'Siege of the South Pole,' 1905, 
unfortunately follows the British attitude of in- 
directly discrediting Palmer's story as to the Rus- 

European Explorers Among the Shetlands 8i 

sian admiral, saying (page lOo), 'It seems strange 
that if informed of the whereabouts of Palmer 
Land, he (Bellingshausen) made no reference to 
that fact in his own book.' 

''However, Dr. Heinryk Arctowski, a Belgian 
professor, a Russian scholar, and an Antarctic 
explorer and expert, supports Palmer by a citation. 
In 'The Antarctic Voyage of the Belgica' (in the 
Geographical Journal, 1901, 18:353-394), Arc- 
towski states that 'this meeting [the meeting be- 
tween Palmer and Bellingshausen] was also de- 
scribed by Bellingshausen himself, as can easily be 
seen by consulting the remarkable but little known 
work of that eminent Russian explorer." 

Bellingshausen's work has appeared in Russian 
only. The title is: "Dwukratnya isiskania w' 
Jujnom Ledowitom Okeanje i plawanie wokrug 
swjeta, &c. ; St. Petersburg, 1831." The account of 
the meeting with Captain Palmer appears in Vol- 
ume 2, pages 261-264. (See Balch's "Antarctica.") 

Greely adds that "it is to be regretted that Dr. 
Hill failed to verify" the quotation from Bellings- 
hausen's work. 

Greely also calls attention to the eleventh edition 
of the Encyclopedia Britannica which was "specially 
Americanized" in order to promote sales in the 
United States. He notes that "it admits in two 
lines that 'Nathaniel Brown Palmer discovered the 
mountainous archipelago which now bears his name.' 

82 Captain Nathaniel Brown Palmer 

It then proceeds to give a column regarding John 

Palmer's discovery of the land came to be ignored 
and discredited, later, because of two explorations 
made by the British — one by Commander Henry 
Foster, R. N., of the sloop of war Chanticleer, and 
the other by Captain John Biscoe, who had been a 
master in the navy but was in the employ of 
London merchants when he went to the South 

Foster was the first of the two to go there. He 
had been detailed by the Admiralty to survey parts 
of the Cape Horn region. While at anchor off 
Port Hatches, Staten Island, in a bad seaway, he 
was seen by Captain Alexander Palmer (brother 
of Captain Nat), and piloted to a safe anchorage 
inside; for Captain Alexander was sealing there at 
the time. 

As Captain Foster and Captain Alex were both 
of an adventurous disposition they soon became 
friends, in spite of the natural attitude of naval 
officers toward fishermen. Captain Al.ex guided 
Foster to various heights of land from which good 
views of the coasts and the islands off shore were 
to be seen, and he fully described the waters as he 
had learned them while working the beaches for 
furs. Further than that, he told Captain Foster all 
about the South Shetlands and especially about 
Yankee Harbor as a port of refuge. Captain 
Foster was thus greatly aided, of course, when he 

EuTope^an Explorers Among the Shetlands 83 

went, later, to that harbor to make a survey of the 

Before leaving. Captain Foster wrote the follow- 
ing letter of acknowledgement which is still pre- 
served among the records at Stonington: 

"These are to certify [by] the principal officers 
and commissioners of his Majesty's Navy that Mr. 
Alexander S. Palmer, master of the American seal- 
ing schooner the Penguin, pilotted His Majesty's 
sloop under my command, from her anchorage off 
Dead Man's Island (Staten Island), the 26th day 
of October, 1828, to the harbour of North Port 
Hatchet (Staten Island), where he this day left her 
moored in perfect safety. Given under my hand 
on board His Majesty's sloop Chanticleer, at North 
Port Hatchet, Staten Island, the 28th day of Oc- 
tober, 1828. 

"Henry Foster, Commander." 

From Captain Alexander Palmer, Commander 
Foster learned, as said, all that an InteDigent and 
experienced sealer could tell him about the South 
Shetlands and the various harbors there. Follow- 
ing the directions given him. Commander Foster 
went in the Chanticleer to Yankee Harbor, where 
he set up various instruments on shore and made 
a considerable survey of the entire region, includ- 
ing a part of Palmer Land. 

The surgeon of the Chanticleer, Dr. W. H. R. 
Webster, wrote an account of the work done in 3 

84 Captain Nathaniel Brown Palmer 

book entitled, "Narrative of a Voyage," &c., in 
which he mentions the help received from Captain 
Alexander Palmer, but not a word is said by him, 
or in Foster's report to the Admiralty, about the 
explorations made by Captain Nathaniel Brown 
Palmer.* The chart made by Foster renames 
Palmer Land. But when Foster wrote a report of 
what he had done there, he omitted to give Captain 
Nat Palmer credit for exploring the coast of the 
continent and he did not use the name Palmer Land. 

Later, two London ship owners, of whom one 
was an enthusiastic member of the Royal Geographic 
Society, sent a ship under the command of Captain 
John Biscoe, mentioned above, to make further ex- 
plorations. Biscoe sailed southwesterly to latitude 
67° i' south, and longitude 71° 48' west of Green- 
wich. In his report he wrote that he had skirted 
"a chain of islands, extending E. N. E. and W. 
S. W., and fronting high continuous land." 

Findlay's "Sailing Directions" says this chain of 
islands "is unquestionably the same which is marked 
in the old charts by the name of Gherritz Land, it 
having been discovered in 1599 by Dirk Gherritz." 

That is to say, Biscoe reported the South Shet- 
lands as a new discovery. Nevertheless the name 
which Biscoe gave to Palmer Land — he called it 
Graham Land — was used thereafter on English 

* Foster was drowned in the Chagres River on his way home 
from the far South. 

Europ^^an Explorers Among the Shetlands 85 

As Greely says, all this matter is to be regretted. 
One may add that it is to be especially regretted 
that the publishers of the Encyclopaedia supposed 
their two-line reference to Palmer would promote 
sales of their work among intelligent people in this 

But if the British attitude be considered without 
prejudice it is found to be easily understandable. 
Note first that the two British surveyors of the 
region had had naval training; in connection with 
that fact recall the attitude of all British naval offi- 
cers of that period toward their own merchant sail- 
ors as well as toward others. Their merchant 
captains, as Lindsay describes them in detail in Vol. 
Ill, Chap. I, of his "History of Merchant Ship- 
ping," were, as a class, ignorant drunkards and 
generally detestable. Lindsay's showing is quite re- 
markable, and it fully explains the contempt which 
the officers of the Royal Navy felt for all merchant 
seamen — for of course they could not believe Ameri- 
can merchantmen superior to their own. 

Since Palmer was a sealer, and so was classed 
with the fishermen in the thoughts of both Foster 
and Biscoe, it is not a matter of great wonder that 
they entirely ignored him in their reports of their 
own surveys. It may seem a little remarkable that 
they should also have ignored Powell's chart of 
Palmer Land, but Powell was also a sealer — one 
of a contemptible class, in the naval view — and 
names bestowed on lands by such as he were not to 

86 Captain Nathaniel Brown Palmer 

be respected by any British naval surveyor of that 

Even the regrettable misstatement made by Dr. 
Mills should be overlooked because elsewhere in 
his book he says: 

"As a matter of historic justice it seems to us 
that Powell's name of Palmer Land ought to be 
retained." (Quoted by Greely.) 

In order that justice be done the memory of Cap- 
tain Palmer it is of importance only that his work 
should be accurately described. This was the view 
of General Greely and it is that of all other Ameri- 
cans who have made a study of Antarctic explora- 
tion. To this General Greely, in the essay quoted 
above, added the following: 

''Has not the time arrived when this glorious 
phase of American maritime history should receive 
full national recognition? Every textbook teach- 
ing polar geography should contain the statement 
that the American Captain, N. B. Palmer, first dis- 
covered parts of the continent of Antarctica, and on 
every official soufeh-polar map should be replaced 
Palmer Land. ... It is therefore the duty of the 
120,000 members of the National Geographic 
Society to create a public sentiment that shall honor 
in our literature and in our history the achievements 
of Nathaniel B. Palmer and Charles Wilkes." 



IT was at 6 A. M., on January 28, that Captain 
Palmer arrived in Yankee Harbor, after his 
memorable cruise along the Antarctic Continent 
— an exploration of at least 150 miles of its coast 
line. What he did thereafter among the Shetlands 
is not recorded in the existing papers, but it is rea- 
sonable to suppose that he continued the work of 
carrying supplies to the camps of the sealers and 
bringing the skins taken there back to the fleet in 
Yankee Harbor. He also had the blubber of ele- 
phant seals to transport to the harbor; for a number 
of the men were engaged in killing those seals, the 
blubber of which was tried out in kettles set up 
on the beach in Yankee Harbor. The Hero, when 
ready to sail for home, was loaded with this oil. 
The day of departure for home was February 22, 
1 82 1, and the entry in the Heroes log, that day, 
was as follows: 

^'Thursday, 2 2d February 
''Commences with fine breeze from west. At 10 
P M got under weigh for sea in compay with 
Frederick, Express and Hersilia. At 1 1 were clear 
from the Harbor." 


88 Captain Nathaniel Brown Palmer 

Two of these vessels were homeward bound, the 
Frederick and the Hero. The Hersilia soon stood 
away to the northwest, bound to "Isld St. Mary's 
In Pacific, hair sealing," and one may suppose that 
her crew were not a little homesick as they left the 
others astern. In fact, if they could have foreseen 
the fate that awaited them, they never would have 
gone to the coast of Chili. The Hersilia safely 
reached her destination and secured 15,000 skins of 
the hair seal — enough to yield a fine profit — but just 
when ready to depart for home the vessel was cap- 
tured by a Spanish officer named Benevlades who 
commanded a force which was attempting to hold 
the Chllenos in subjection to the Spanish crown. 
The crew were made prisoners and all were com- 
pelled to serve the Spanish officers in menial capaci- 
ties. Captain Sheffield and most of his crew finally 
escaped in whaleboats and went to Valparaiso. 
Commodore Sir T. M. Hardy, commanding the 
British naval squadron In those waters, at once sent 
a sloop of war,* with Captain Sheffield, to liberate 
the remainder of the sailors, and they were brought 
back; but the Hersilia and her cargo had been de- 
stroyed by the Spaniards during a battle with the 
Patriots, In which he was defeated. 

The log of the Hero for the voyage homeward 
contains nothing of interest here until the entry of 
May 7, which reads : 

*The Conivay, Captain Basil Hall. The story is told in con- 
siderable detail in Hall's "Chili, Peru and Mexico," Part I, Chapter 

Superior Work of the Stonington Men 89 

"Commences with fresh gales from north. Pleas- 
ant. At 6 reefed the mainsail. At 7 sounded and 
got ground at 75, [figures indistinct] fathoms. 
Middle part with light rain. At 10 sounded. Got 
ground at 35 fathoms with soft [illegible] ooze 
which indicates being in Block Island channel. At 
6AM made the land. Stood in and at 10 tacked 
eastward. Were about 15 miles to the westward 
of Montaug Point. Ends with fair weather, light 
winds N by east. Employed in various jobs." 

So runs the last entry in the Heroes log. It was 
a day of low visibility, as a naval officer might say, 
and the Hero was carried to the westward of Ston- 
ington, but she was anchored, safe at home, before 
supper time, beyond a doubt, after the most memo- 
rable cruise known to the history of the American 
merchant marine. 

Of the financial results of the expedition to the 
South Shetlands a sufficient account is found in the 
records which may be quoted here in part. One 
faded memorandum contains the following (see 

P- 90). 

The item of 1,207 skins credited to "boats" is of 

special interest, for one may suppose that these skins 
were taken from the outlying rocks by the crews of 
whaleboats in the manner already described. At 
least a hundred such landings must have been made 
by the sailors to secure that number. Rightly seen, 
that brief memorandum is a record of daring, en- 
durance and persistence rarely if ever equaled. 


Captain Nathaniel Brown Palmer 


ime fur skins. 

"The Hero brought [from] camps on the beach and put on the 
different vessels the following Fur seal skins: 

November 27, 1820. Sloop Hero from camp arrived with 465 Fur 
skins prime skins. 

Deer 2d. Sloop from camp with [illegible] 616 

Sloop arrived from camp Deer 5th with. . 906 

Deer 9th sloop from camp with prime.... 9790 

Deer i2th sloop from camp with 5616 

Deer 16 sloop from camp with 6865 

Deer 19 sloop from camp with 8229 

Deer 30 " " " " 8000 

Jany 9, 1821 sloop from camp with 6ioi 

"12 " " " " 2800 


Novr. 27, boats. 



. 1207 

February 6, 1821, took on board brig Frederick, Capt. Ben., from 
Brig Hersilia, Capt. James Sheffield, 12,000 prime fur seal. 

The Hersilia is bound to isld St. Mary's in Pacific hair sealing." 

The footings in the above column of figures are 
incorrect, as the reader may determine. 

The total catch of the entire fleet of sealers at 
the South Shetlands during the season of 1820- 
182 1 is set down in the records at 250,000. Of 
this number the American vessels are credited with 
150,000, of which number the Stonington fleet se- 
cured 88,000. The Stonington vessels also carried 
home 1,500 barrels of elephant seal oil then worth 
$10 a barrel. The price received for the skins is 
not given. 

A little calculation shows that the 12 European 
sealers averaged 8,333 skins each and the 18 Ameri- 
can vessels the same number. But the crews of 
the eight Stonington vessels, having taken 88,000, 

Superior Work of the Stonington Men 91 

their average was 11,000 each. It is reasonable to 
suppose that a considerable part of this superiority 
was due to the fact that populous rookeries were 
found by Captain Palmer in his first cruise among 
the islands. 



HAVING made large profits by their expedition 
of 1 820-1 82 1, the people of Stonington 
naturally fitted out still another one for the 
ensuing season. The vessels included the brigs 
Frederick and Alabama Packet, the schooners Ex- 
press and Free Gift and the sloops James Monroe 
and Hero, 

Two sloops were taken this time In order that 
one might serve the fleet continuously as a tender, 
while the other would be free to sail in search of 
new seal islands. For the explorations the James 
Monroe, a larger sloop than the Hero, was selected, 
and Captain Palmer was put in command. 

The sailing orders issued to Captain Palmer, on 
this occasion, as well as the order under which he 
returned home from the South Shetlands, have been 
preserved and they are given here partly because 
they relate to the captain's work and partly be- 
cause few documents of the kind are now to be 
found anywhere. The sailing orders read: 

"Stonington, July 21, 182 1. 
"Capt. Nathaniel B. Palmer, Sir: 

"You will proceed to sea with the sloop James 
Monroe the first favorable opportunity in company 


Exploring with the Sloop '^ James Monroe'^ 93 

with the brig Alabama Packet and make all despatch 
for East Harbor (if you get separated from the 
Alabama Packet) on the north side of Cape St. 
Johns in the Island of Statten Land. On your ar- 
rival at this East Harbour (which lays 2 or 3 miles 
from the end of Cape St. Johns on the north side 
of the cape) if you do not find Capt. Benjm. Pen- 
dleton or Capt. William A. Fanning there you will 
then (after taking in what wood and water you 
stand in need of if not joined by one of them), pro- 
ceed with all despatch for Deception harbour in 
New South Iceland, where you will employ your 
crew in taking Elephant blubber and mincing and 
fining your casks with mixed blubber & procur- 
ing seal skins until you are joined by Capt. Pendle- 
ton or Fanning. It is expected you will use your 
best judgment to keep your crew in harmony and 
good spirits. Good usage and strict Discipline will 
best do this and enable you to procure a good voy- 
age, or full cargo of skins and oil, which is our first 
object and wish, and we expect your best endeavor 
at all times to do this. You will consider yourself 
and crew and vessel mated with the brigs Frederick 
and Alabama Packet, schooners Express & Free Gift 
and sloop Hero, and you will share with them in 
proportion to the number of their and your crews, 
as Capt. Benjm Pendleton shall direct, and you will 
at all time consider yourself and vessel under his 
orders and directions, but in case of his inability 
or absence you will consider yourself & vessel under 

94 Captain Nathaniel Brown Palmer 

the orders and direction of Capt. William A. Fan- 
ning, & govern your acts and proceedings accord- 
ingly, and as your vessel is fitted and sent out for 
the express purpose to act as a tender or shallop 
to the vessels of this concern, you will at all times 
consider the importance of arriving at Deception 
harbour by the time that the brigs Frederick and 
Alabama Packet does, and with this [blotted] 
recommend to you to use your best endeavors to 
keep in company and not get separated from the 
brig Alabama Packet in your passage out. You will 
be prudent and careful in the expenditure of your 
provisions & stores & do your best to obtain a good 

"Wishing you health and prosperity, we are your 
sincere friends 

"E. Fanning 1 Agents for the 
"B. Pendleton J Concern 

*T. S. — If any Inability occurs to Capt. Nathl B. 
Palmer then the next commanding officer will govern 
himself strictly by the above orders. 

"E. Fanning \a_„._» 
*'B. Pendleton ]^^^''^^' 

When ready to return home at the end of the sea- 
son Captain Palmer received the following letter 
from Commodore Pendleton: 
«gjj.. "Shetland, Jany 25, 1822. 

"You being ready you will proceed to sea and 
make all possible despatch for the port of Stoning- 

Exploring with the Sloop *^James Monroe^' 95 

ton, consistent with the safety of your vessel and 
cargo. Should necessity oblige you to stop I recom- 
mend [illegible] having as little communication 
with the main as possible ; I wish you to bear In mind 
the Importance of as little detention as your situation 
will admit of. 

"Relying on your ability and active exertions to 
effect the speedy close of the part of our expedition 
intrusted to your charge, I am, 

"Sir, yr. obt. Servt., Benjamin Pendleton. 
"Capt. N. B. Palmer 

Vas Monroe,'' 

The order to have as little communication with 
the main as possible is of interest because at that 
time all the Spanish American colonies were in revolt 
and American vessels were harshly treated in South 
American ports, no matter which army was In posses- 
sion; and that is a matter to receive further con- 
sideration in another chapter. 

As soon as the sloop James Monroe arrived at 
Yankee Harbor she fitted out for an exploring ex- 
pedition along the coast of the Antarctic Continent 
which Captain Palmer had visited the previous sea- 
son. Commodore Pendleton hoped that In spite of 
the failure to find fur seals there In the former trip 
they might haul out there during this season. This 
hope proved vain, but it is interesting to note that, 
while all the other exploring expeditions to that re- 
gion were made in large and well-found vessels 

g6 Captain Nathaniel Brown Palmer 

(the tender of the Wilkes expedition was of lOO 
tons burden and built with special framing for the 
purpose), the sealers nonchalantly used common 
coasters from Long Island Sound. While men thus 
risk their lives for any good purpose the evolution 
of the race is assured. 

As in his previous trip along the continent, Cap- 
tain Palmer carefully examined the bays and fiords 
and islands found there but he did not see a fur seal, 
and when in about the same latitude as before 
(68^) he was turned back by solid ice. 

Having returned to Yankee Harbor, Captain 
Palmer was sent to the east and southeast to ex- 
plore the continent still further. In this voyage a 
British sealer, the sloop Dove, Captain George 
Powell, sailed in company with the James Monroe. 
It seems worth while to emphasize the fact that 
these two sealers. Captain Palmer and Captain 
Powell, worked together in entire harmony. A 
small group of barren islands was discovered on 
December 6, 1821, lying between 60° 30' and 60° 
48' south latitude and between 44° and 47° west 
longitude. The exact extent of the coast of the 
continent which the two explorers traced is not 
given in the records. No seals were found. 

On the return of the two vessels to Yankee Har- 
bor, Captain Powell suggested that, as the main- 
land (supposed to be an island), found the pre- 
vious year, had been named for Captain Palmer, 

Exploring with the Sloop ^^James Monroe** 97 

the islands discovered on the present voyage should 
be named Powell's Islands; and to this all the cap- 
tains in the harbor agreed. 

Captain Powell also told the other sealers that, 
on his return home to London, he purposed pub- 
lishing a chart of the entire South Shetland region 
which the sealers had thus far explored, and asked 
for all the notes the others had made. To this 
the sealers all cordially agreed, of course. The 
facts thus obtained, added to what he had learned 
through his own observations, were combined in the 
chart previously mentioned. 

The Stonington fleet was by no means successful 
in the harvest at the South Shetlands, during this 
season. The rookeries had been so badly depleted 
in the preceding year that only 1,500 skins were 
taken all told during this one. Accordingly, in order 
to make a profit in spite of this failure, the two brigs 
and the sloop Hero went to the coasts of Peru and 
Chili for skins of the hair seal. Captain Alexander 
Palmer, a brother of Captain Nat, sailed on this ex- 
pedition as a boy on the Alabama Packet. A memo- 
randum left by him says that the crews of the 
three vessels which went to the coast of Chili took 
27,000 skins at St. Mary's and Mocha Islands. 
These the Frederick carried home, after which the 
Alabama Packet and the Hero crews took 25,000 
more. The little fleet also secured 1,500 barrels 
of elephant seal oil. The Hero was then sold at 

98 Captain Nathaniel Brown Palmer 

Coquimbo. The Alabama Packet arrived at Ston- 
ington in a few days less than two years from the 
day she left that port. On the whole the Stonington 
venture had been profitable, even though few furs 
were secured. 



TO say to a reader who knows nothing about 
the conditions then prevailing at sea, that 
Captain Palmer, after his return In 1822 
from the Shetland Islands, made a voyage from New 
Haven to St. Bartholomew, in the West Indies, and 
back. In a little less than a month, does not convey 
any very startling Information. But If It were said 
to one familiar with the history of the region, the 
reply might well be : 

''Short voyage, that, but you couldn't blame him 
for carrying on.** 

"Carrying on" certainly was needful when voyages 
were made to any part of the West Indies, or to the 
Spanish American coast. In those days. During all 
the years in which Americans had had a merchant 
marine, speed had been necessary if losses were to 
be avoided. Ships had always carried cannon when 
bound on oversea voyages. For the wars of Europe 
had always Involved the Americans, and European 
privateers, most of whom were little or no better 
than pirates, had always considered American ships 
good prizes. To escape them It was always neces- 
sary to run or fight. 


100 Captain Nathaniel Brown Palmer 

In 1822, even though the War of 18 12 had taught 
European naval people that Yankee sailors were 
first class fighting men, the American ships were 
continuously harassed in all West India waters 
because the revolt of the Spanish American colonies 
had created a condition of anarchy throughout that 
region. Many armed ships, from American ports 
as well as from European, had been sent ostensibly 
to join the revolutionists in their fight against Spain. 
Some of the ablest captains who had commanded 
privateers in the War of 18 12 had thus gone to the 
aid of the Spanish-Americans. But while they as- 
serted their object was to fight for universal free- 
dom, they were really actuated by a desire to plunder 
Spanish shipping. Going to any Spanish-American 
port which was in the control of revolutionists, they 
secured commissions as privateers. 

Sailing thence they searched the West India 
waters for Spanish ships, they went to the coasts 
of Spain with a similar intent and they even sailed 
as far as Manila. But while a few were enormously 
successful the many failed to find any Spanish ship 
worth the trouble of looting. 

Now the crews of these unlucky privateers were 
engaged under a contract by which they were to 
receive a share of the plunder in lieu of wages — 
no plunder, no wages. And the members of the 
crews were commonly men of long experience in 
privateering or of no experience whatever. The 
old hands, having been plundering ships for years, 

Carrying Supplies to Bolivar loi 

had no scruples about doing deeds of outright 
piraq^ — and the officers of those vessels were 
the most experienced and the most greedy men on 
board. Lacking lawful plunder the Spanish-Ameri- 
can pirates took such plunder as came to hand, re- 
gardless of the flag involved. 

When Captain Palmer made his short voyage 
to St. Bartholomew, in 1822, there were many of 
these piratical cruisers afloat among the West Indies. 
There were also pirates under the Spanish flag 
searching for American merchantmen. Having a 
navy that was in every way inefficient, the Spaniards 
had thought to curb the cruisers under Spanish- 
American flags by declaring a blockade of all Span- 
ish-American ports — a paper blockade, so called 
because they were unable to enforce it. They then 
commissioned armed vessels to go in search of 
any ships bound to or from any of the ports upon 
which a blockade had been declared. The crews 
of these Spanish privateers were of the same 
character as those under the patriot flags — pirates 

The "Naval Affairs" volumes of the "American 
State Papers" contain scores of documents relating 
to the pirates of both classes. On page 814, of 
Volume I, for example, is a list of six of the Spanish 
privateers that were fitted out at Porto Rican ports. 
One, named Pancheta, was "an hermaphrodite brig, 
pierced for sixteen guns, carries ten or twelve; has 
a complement of 120 men." 

102 Captain Nathaniel Brown Palmer 

In another document (p. 787) is the following 
under date of March 2, 1822: 

''The extent to which the system of plunder upon 
the ocean is carried on in the West India seas and 
Gulf of Mexico, is truly alarming. . . . Some fresh 
instance of the atrocity with which the pirates carry 
on their depredations, accompanied, too, by the in- 
discriminate massacre of the defenceless, is brought 
by almost every mail. . . . The committee of the 
House of Representatives are induced to believe 
that this system of piracy is now spreading itself to 
a vast extent, attracting to it the idle, vicious and 
desperate of all nations." 

In proof that the system was thus spreading is 
a statement in a document dated December 2, 1824, 
which appears on page 22 of Volume II, as follows: 

"Whole crews have been recently murdered, their 
vessels burnt and their cargoes plundered and In 
some instances openly sold at the Matanzas or the 

Other documents give details of the assaults upon 
merchant crews which make painful reading; for 
not only were these seamen cut to pieces with knives 
but they were confined under hatches and the ships 
were then fired, so that the crews were burned to 

It was while such conditions as these documents 

Carrying Supplies to Bolivar 103 

described were prevailing in the West Indies that 
young Captain Palmer left the sealing business and 
took command of a small merchantman bound to 
St. Bartholomew. It was a voyage during which 
he was fully justified in carrying sail to the limit, 
but when the young captain recalled it in later years 
the danger, if it were realized while on the route, 
was entirely forgotten. At any rate when the cap- 
tain mentioned this voyage it was only to tell what 
he considered a good joke upon himself. A letter 
written A. A. Low, the New York tea merchant, in 
1875, a copy of which is among the papers at Ston- 
ington, gives the facts. It says that after the sloop 
James Monroe returned from her voyage to the 
South Shetlands and the Antarctic Continent, she 
was sold at auction at Stonington. A New Haven 
ship merchant named Henry Trowbridge bought her 
for use in the West India trade as a "sheep jockey," 
to use the term applied to such vessels, and Palmer 
was hired to take command. The letter continues: 

"I took the sloop to New Haven and put her in 
condition for the voyage. She was loaded with 
everything you can think of below. Even the cabin 
was filled, leaving one length of berths for the mate 
and myself. The deck was filled with sheep, 175 
in number. On top of [above] the sheep [the] 
deck was fitted with coops of fowls and provender — 
a hard-looking sloop, I assure you, when ready for 
sea. We sailed and in 12 days arrived at our port, 

104 Captain Nathaniel Brown Palmer 

a long time in advance of vessels that had sailed 
before us. Sold our cargo, half loaded our sloop 
with sugar and arrived back at New Haven in 29 
days from day of our departure. 

"I had enough of New Haven Sheep Jockeys 
and demanded my discharge, after entering the 
vessel. Nothing had been said about wages. I 
called on Mr. Trowbridge for settlement — a pom- 
pous, fat old fellow. He said: 

" 'Captain, what do you think the wages should 

" 'What you think is right.' 

" 'Well,' he said, 'I think as you have made the 
voyage in 29 days, I think thirty silver dollars is 
about a fair thing. I do not think it good policy 
for a young man to have too much money. They 
are very apt to make a bad use of it.' " 

Most of the ship owners of that day were con- 
stantly on the lookout for seamen who could make 
swift passages, and the 29-day voyage to St. Bar- 
tholomew led Captain Palmer to the command of 
a schooner named Cadet which was in the trade 
to the Spanish Main. It was, of course, a much 
more dangerous trade than that to St. Bartholomew. 
For not only was the captain obliged to run the risk 
of meeting all the varieties of pirates in the West 
Indies, but he was subjected to the whims of both 
the South American Patriots and the Spanish offi- 

Carrying Supplies to Bolivar 105 

cials who were fighting to maintain the power of 

Only one letter and a few notes made by friends 
remain to tell the story of the two voyages made in 
the Cadet, but it appears that she was the property 
of Baldwin & Spooner, of New York, and that both 
voyages were made to Carthagena, where Bolivar 
was in command. It is therefore reasonable to sup- 
pose that the cargo consisted of arms, ammunition, 
medicines and other supplies which an army in the 
field would need. There was some trouble with 
the consignee in the first voyage, the character of 
which is not given, but it is plainly shown that Cap- 
tain Palmer handled the matter to the satisfaction 
of the owners. In the second voyage the cargo was 
delivered in good order on February 25, 1824; but 
when the captain would have sailed for home he 
was compelled to carry a detachment of the Patriot 
army to the port of Chagres, at the mouth of the 
river that gave the canal builders on the Isthmus 
of Panama so much trouble. 

Blunt's "American Coast Pilot," issued in 1847, 
quotes Capt. G. Sidney Smith, H. H. Sloop Bustard, 
as follows, regarding the dangers of Chagres: 

"I would not recommend its being entered, if 
the measure could possibly be avoided, or to suffer 
the boats to be there at night. It is perhaps, the 
most unhealthy place known. The Bustard^ s cutter 

io6 Captain Nathaniel Brown Palmer 

was by stress of weather, obliged to pass a night in 
the harbor; the consequent loss was a lieutenant and 
seven men; only one of the number attacked re- 
covered. This happened between the 27th and 30th 
day of November, 1827." 

In spite of the deadly character of the port, Cap- 
tain Palmer was detained there for a month. Of 
course he suffered from an attack of the fever for 
which the port was notorious, but the strength of 
mind and body which had been developed in him 
during eleven years of life as a sailor, and especially 
during his life as a sealer, carried him safely 
through. However, he lost his hair and when it 
grew in again it had changed from the light color 
which had characterized it theretofore to a dark 

Up to this time Captain Palmer had been a big 
boy in appearance. Now, as health returned, he 
became a notable figure physically, and he developed 
the commanding presence which made him every 
inch a master whenever he appeared upon a ship's 
deck, whether his own or another's. 

After Captain Palmer recovered from the attack 
of Chagres fever far enough to be able to go to 
sea, he chartered the Cadet to carry Spaniards — 
prisoners whom Bolivar had captured — to Santiago 
de Cuba. And this purpose was accomplished to 
the entire satisfaction of Bolivar, of the Spaniards, 
and of the owners of the Cadet. 

Carrying Supplies to Bolivar 107 

Though so few details of either of the voyages 
from New York remain on record, it will help the 
reader to appreciate the character of the captain 
to restate what he did during the two voyages to 

Though but twenty-three years old he was trusted 
to carry a cargo that was contraband of war, to 
the insurgent chief at Carthagena. On his passage 
out he had to risk meeting pirates of all classes, 
any one of whom would have found the Cadet's 
cargo most valuable. At Carthagena he had to deal 
not only with Bolivar but with a number of subor- 
dinate officers who were at once proud, poverty- 
stricken and, in cases, not too scrupulous in their 
methods of securing the supplies they wanted. With 
these. Palmer had to settle the accounts of the 
schooner; from them he had to get the price of the 
goods he had brought, and he did it. When trans- 
porting the insurgent troops to Chagres, he cer- 
tainly had a turbulent mass of humanity to deal 
with. And, finally, when he carried the Spaniards 
to the Spanish port of Santiago, in Cuba, he had 
a still more sensitive class to deal with. Moreover, 
he arrived at his destination under the odium of 
having been in the employ of the insurgents — trai- 
tors, in the Spanish view — and was therefore 
obliged to deal with the Santiago officials under a 
heavy handicap. But difficult as was his work he 
accomplished it all, as said, to the entire satisfaction 

io8 Captain Nathaniel Brown Palmer 

of the Insurgents, the Spaniards and the owners of 
the schooner. 

When a Spaniard wishes to compliment his 
friends he commonly says they are muy simpatico. 
Literally translated the words mean "very sym- 
pathetic" ; but as used by the Spanish American they 
imply full understanding as well as entire sympathy. 
All the Spanish-speaking people, with whom Cap- 
tain Palmer came In contact during those voyages 
in the Cadet, found him 77iiiy simpatico. And entire 
sympathy with full understanding bound a great host 
of friends to him throughout his life. 

After leaving Santiago, homeward bound, the 
Cadet had to sail through the pirate-Infested waters 
along the south coast of Cuba ; for the sailing route 
was to the w^est along that coast to Cape San An- 
tonio and thence easterly with the Gulf Stream. 
The cape was then and for years thereafter the lurk- 
ing place of pirates, for the reason that so many 
vessels bound north passed that way. 

However, Captain Palmer met no pirates in those 
waters, but an experience of that kind came later 
off the west coast of South America under remark- 
able circumstances. The second voyage to Car- 
thagena ended disastrously because the Cadet was 
driven ashore on the Jersey coast, near Long 
Branch. What the prevailing storm conditions were 
is not a matter of record, but it Is said that Captain 
Nat's brother, Alexander, was a member of the 
Cadet's crew (mate) and when she stranded he and 

Carrying Supplies to Bolivar 109 

another sailor launched a small boat to carry a line 
to the beach. The surf rolled the boat over in spite 
of the skilled efforts of the experienced young sealer 
who was handling her, but he and the sailor made 
their way ashore and they carried the line, at that. 
So all hands were saved, but the vessel was a total 

Of all the misfortunes that come to a young cap- 
tain none is greater than the loss of a ship. For 
unless he can prove clearly that he was in no way 
to blame, the underwriters blacklist him and other 
owners become in like manner ill-disposed toward 
him. There is then nothing for him to do but begin 
over again, and he is lucky to get a berth as second 
mate. But Captain Nat was now placed in com- 
mand of the brig Tampico and sent once more on 
a voyage to Carthagena. In spite of shipwreck as 
well as in spite of supersensitive consignees, the 
young captain made his way. A fourth voyage to 
Carthagena was made in 1826, and after returning 
home from this one he was married. 

It used to be said of any young sailor that he 
had a sweetheart in every port. Captain Nat had 
one sweetheart only and she lived in Stonington — 
Miss Eliza T., the daughter of Paul Babcock. The 
two were married on December 7, 1826. Mrs. 
Palmer's brother David was a famous clipper cap- 
tain and, later. President of the Pacific Mail Steam- 
ship Company. 

The career of the young captain during the next 

1 10 Captain Nathaniel Brown Palmer 

few years was typical of young American seamen 
of the day. He made seven voyages in the Tampico 
with his brother Alexander as mate. In some of 
these he went to Europe. It appears from notes 
made by a member of the family that he eventually 
became owner of this vessel and that he sold her 
in 1828 for $5,300, a fact that shows he was ac- 
cumulating wxalth. A part of this money was in- 
vested in a new schooner which was put into the 
trade between New Orleans and Vera Cruz, Mexico. 
He had traded to Mobile, as well as to New 

In the meantime sufficient reasons for sending 
another exploring expedition to the Antarctic waters 
had been under consideration by the public — es- 
pecially alongshore — and young Captain Palmer be- 
came a leader in the enterprise under circumstances 
of so much interest that a special chapter may be 
given to the matter. 



THE Story of the voyage which Captain Na- 
thaniel Brown Palmer made to the Antarctic 
region in 1 829-1 830, if considered as a chap- 
ter in the history of the American merchant marine, 
is of little less interest than that of his voyage 
during which he discovered the Antarctic Con- 

To show the captain's standing in this expedition, 
and more especially his mental attitude toward the 
work, it is necessary to describe rather fully the 
peculiar circumstances which led up to the venture. 
A perusal of the periodicals of the day shows that 
after Captain Palmer discovered the Antarctic Con- 
tinent, and after the story of his interview with 
Captain Bellingshausen, of the Russian exploring ex- 
pedition, had been told alongshore, the whalers and 
sealers of the New England coast began to talk 
about the advisability of sending a national [naval] 
expedition to survey the unvisited waters of the far 
South and those of the Pacific — to do such work 
as that which the Russians had been doing. That 
is to say the expedition should, they said : 

112 Captain Nathaniel Brown Palmer 

"(i) Search for lands which passing ships had 
reported in far southern seas, the location of which, 
however, was not definitely known. 

"(2) Locate definitely some hundreds of islands 
which had been discovered by strolling whalers in 
various parts of the Pacific. 

"(3) Search for lands in unvisited waters." 

The sealers of Stonington were especially inter- 
ested in an island which Capt. James C. Swain, of 
the whaler Alliance, of Newport, R. I., said he 
had seen, or which he thought he saw, while on his 
way home from the Pacific with 2,300 barrels of 
sperm oil. When on his way to round the Horn 
he passed much further south than usual, and in lati- 
tude 59° south and longitude 90° west, "discovered 
an island . . . covered with snow and abounding 
with seadogs and fowl." So runs the record. The 
date of the discovery is not given but the Alliance 
arrived home on May 21, 1824. 

Capt. Richard Macy, of Nantucket, "a very in- 
telligent man," who had "long been engaged in the 
whale fishery," and had "shown more than usual 
skill in his observations . . . discovered an island 
four or five miles in extent, in south latitude 59° 
and west longitude 91°, his ship passing near enough 
to see the breakers. The island abounded with 
seadogs, or seals, and the water was much colored 
and thick with rockweed." 

This observation was made on the way to the 

Another Memorable Exploring Expedition 113 

Pacific. When coming home from this voyage (he 
reached Nantucket on April 17, 1825), Macy 
sailed far south once more, reaching the 55th par- 
allel, and at a point of which the longitude is not 
given he "found the water much colored, abounding 
with rockweed and seals." 

The above facts and quoted statements are taken 
from Volume IV of the "Naval Affairs" of the 
"American State Papers" series, pages 695-698, and 
from Starbuck's "History of American Whaling," 
pages 243 and 246. The location of the island, as 
thus described, seems sufficiently definite to warrant 
a search. Apparently any ship master should have 
been able to confirm the discoveries with little diffi- 
culty. But references to discoveries, found else- 
where In the record quoted, show that both of those 
whalers saw, or thought they saw, the Islands after 
they had been sailing by dead reckoning for several 
days. Cloudy weather prevented their verifying the 
locations by observations of the sun or any other 
heavenly body. 

It Is also to be noted here that the "Naval Af- 
fairs" volume quoted, says that even the observa- 
tions of the sun, as made by the whalers under 
favorable conditions, were not trustworthy. Their 
chronometers were commonly out of time and they 
used poor instruments in a careless manner. 

The two reports of Islands upon which many 
"seadogs" were seen by passing ships, aroused keen 
interest at Stonlngton, which was then the principal 

114 Captain Nathaniel Brown Palmer 

port of the sealers. The whalers of Nantucket were 
almost as deeply Interested, however, and the matter 
was fully discussed by seafaring people all along 
the coast. At the same time the many islands that 
had been reported from various parts of the Pacific 
were considered. For all of these islands, and more 
especially the low-lying coral reefs, were deadly 
sources of peril to all shipping as long as their exact 
locations had not been charted. 

The call for a naval exploring expedition which 
arose in consequence of these reports was entirely 
new in America, and may receive further considera- 
tion. In every newspaper discussion of the call the 
fact that the British were active in making such 
explorations was mentioned. The fact that the Rus- 
sians, who had no financial interests in the Antarctic 
seas, had sent two warships there, was referred to. 
More important still was the insistence upon the 
humiliating fact that American seamen were abso- 
lutely dependent upon charts provided by British 
surveyors whenever a deep-water voyage was to be 
made. However loudly the Yankee sailor might 
boast of the superiority of his ship over all others, 
the British sailor always came back with a quiet 
query as to where that ship got her charts. 

Granting that the sealers and the whalers had a 
financial interest in a naval exploring expedition, it 
Is yet certain that they were also animated by a 
feeling of patriotic indignation over the supine at- 
titude of Congress in the matter. 

Another Memorable Exploring Expedition 115 

In the *'Naval Affairs" volufties quoted many of 
the great folio pages are covered with letters and 
memorials on the subject of a naval exploring ex- 
pedition, all of which show a growing interest in 
the subject. An energetic young Yankee named 
J. N. Reynolds was a leader in the efforts to move 
Congress. Captain Edmund Fanning, the Stoning- 
ton capitalist who had made a fortune taking seals 
in the Cape Horn region, was an equally influential 
worker. His "Voyages Round the World," which 
is yet an interesting volume of explorations, was 
written when public discussion of the matter was 
at its height. In connection with the propaganda 
of the two men mentioned it is noted in the "Naval 
Affairs" volumes that memorials were presented to 
Congress, in 1 827-1 829, which were signed by Gov. 
James Iredell, of North Carolina, and by Lieut. 
Gov. Erastus Root, of New York. The House of 
Delegates, in Maryland, passed a resolution favor- 
ing the project. Hon. Linn Banks, Speaker of the 
House of Delegates, in Virginia, and "a large and 
very respectable number of the members of the 
Legislature" also signed a memorial on the subject. 

In short, public interest was aroused to a point 
so high that "on May 21, 1828, the House of 
Representatives passed a resolution requesting the 
President of the United States" to send "one of our 
small naval vessels to the Pacific Ocean and the 
South Sea to examine the coasts, islands, harbors, 
shoals and reefs in those seas, and to ascertain 

Ii6 Captain Nathaniel Brown Palmer 

their true location and description." The resolu- 
tion authorized "the use of such facilities as could 
be afforded by the [Navy] Department without 
further appropriation during the year." 

In a letter written by Secretary of the Navy 
Samuel Southard, on May 23, 1828, he said, "there 
was no vessel belonging to our navy which in its 
then condition was proper to send upon this ex- 
pedition." However, the sloop-of-war Peacock was 
ordered to the Brooklyn Navy yard to be properly 
fitted for such a survey, and Master Commandant 
Thomas ap Catesby Jones was placed in command 
of her. Mr. J. N. Reynolds was appointed an 
agent of the Navy Department to assist in provid- 
ing the outfit. It was then decided to send along 
a commercial expert, an astronomer, "a naturalist 
with one or two assistants, and a historiographer." 

Then "a second vessel was conditionally purchased 
at an agreed price of $10,000" to serve as "a pro- 
vision ship." This vessel was the brig Seraph, 
owned and commanded by Captain Benjamin Pen- 
dleton, of Stonington, the man who had been com- 
modore of the Stonington sealing fleet in the expedi- 
tions of 1820-1822. Pendleton had already loaded 
the Seraph with a cargo for Malaga, when he was 
approached with an invitation to go with the ex- 
plorers, but he was persuaded to discharge the cargo 
and fit out for the Antarctic. In the view of Sec- 
retary of the Navy Southard, Pendleton's experi- 

Another Memorable Exploring Expedition 117 

ence In Antarctic waters made his presence In the 
expedition imperative. 

In the meantime Lieut. Charles Wilkes was se- 
lected to go as astronomer to the expedition, and 
Southard ordered him to provide all the Instru- 
ments which would be needed for making accurate 
surveys on the coasts to be explored. On this order 
Wilkes purchased instruments to the value of 
$1,167.50 for which he paid with his own money, 
and he also bought others to the value of $3,248 
for which he promised to pay. 

In due time the Peacock and the Seraph were fit- 
ted for the expedition and the force of scientists 
was organized and held awaiting orders to join 
the ships. An application was then made to Con- 
gress for a small appropriation with which to pay 
the running expenses of the expedition. 

In the meantime, however, a national election had 
been held and Andrew Jackson became President in 
place of John Quincy Adams, while John Branch 
succeeded Samuel L. Southard as Secretary of the 
Navy. Changes in the membership of the House 
of Representatives and the Senate had given the 
new Administration full control of the Government. 
When the application for this appropriation came 
before the Senate it was referred to the Naval Com- 
mittee, who, on February 23, 1829, reported that 
they were well aware "that a general opinion pre- 
vailed throughout the country that the measure had 

Ii8 Captain Nathaniel Brown Palmer 

received the deliberate sanction of both Houses of 
Congress and that the appropriation of the sum 
now called for was therefore considered as a matter 
of course. But . . . the committee was still of 
the opinion that it was safer to delay acting." 

Meantime Lieutenant Wilkes carried his bill for 
the instruments, which he had been ordered to buy, 
to Secretary of the Navy John Branch. The Secre- 
tary told him ''that as Congress had made no ap- 
propriation or done any act to countenance the or- 
ders given" for purchasing those instruments, he 
would not pay the bill. Wilkes was therefore 
obliged to apply to Congress for "relief." 

The brig Seraph was returned, "as is and where 
is," to Captain Pendleton, and in order to get pay 
for the loss of his voyage to Malaga and the time 
and money spent in fitting her for the expedition, he 
was also told to apply for "relief" to a Congress 
that was hostile to everything which the preceding 
Administration had done or countenanced, even 
when the nation as a whole had expressed approval. 

The incident was so discreditable that the facts 
might well have been allowed to lie buried in the 
unread archives of the period but for their effect 
upon Captain Palmer and other citizens of Stoning- 
ton. To them the arrogant attitude of the Jack- 
son Administration seemed little short of a personal 
affront, and their natural resentment took a form 
which was a rasping rebuke. Congress had re- 
fused to send the expedition on the ground that the 

Another Memorable Exploring Expedition 119 

expense was too great for the nation to bear. So 
the people of Stonlngton announced that they would 
send out at their own expense two vessels well 
equipped, and carrying a force of scientists, to make 
the desired exploration of the Antarctic region. 
They acted in the spirit which had prevailed among 
our sailors of the sail from the day when the keel 
of the first American ship was stretched. Said Gov- 
ernor John Winthrop, when writing about that 
ship — the Blessing of the Bay: 

"The general fear of a want of foreign commodi- 
ties ... set us on work to provide shipping of our 

A want — any want — set the Yankee sailor of 
the sail "on work." Wanting ships with which to 
explore the stormy waters below Cape Horn the 
people of Stonington provided them regardless of 
the attitude of the Jackson Administration. Cap- 
tain Edmund Fanning was too old to take part per- 
sonally in such a voyage but he was able and willing 
to take the lead in financing it. Captain Benjamin 
Pendleton and Captain Nathaniel Brown Palmer 
were associated with him as financiers, and together 
they took the risks of the actual exploration. Two 
brigs, the Seraph belonging to Captain Pendleton, 
and the Annazvan (also written Anawan)^ of which 
Captain Palmer was managing owner, were pro- 
vided. Each captain took command of his own ves- 
sel, of course. A third vessel, the schooner Penguin, 

I20 Captain Nathaniel Brown Palmer 

a schooner of 84 tons, was added to the expedition 
after it arrived at Staten Island, and as this ex- 
pedition was notable in the annals of our merchant 
marine the addition of the Penguin may receive a 
paragraph, or more. 

The Penguin was under the command of Captain 
Alexander Palmer, the younger brother of Captain 
Nat, of whom mention has been made. Captain 
Alex, as he was called, had taken the Penguin on 
a sealing expedition to Staten Island in 1827, with 
considerable success, though he was not yet 21 years 
old. He went to the same region again in 1828, 
and in the month of October, while lying in North 
Port Hatchet Bay, Staten Island, he met, as pre- 
viously mentioned. Commander Henry Foster of 
the British sloop-of-war Chanticleer, which was 
surveying the coasts of the islands in the Cape Horn 

On his return from this voyage Captain Alex 
found preparations in hand for the Stonington ex- 
ploring expedition in search of the islands supposed 
to have been seen by Captains Swain and Macy. He 
thereupon fitted out for another sealing expedition 
to Staten Island, and when there he awaited in 
North Port Hatchet Bay the coming of the explor- 
ing brigs Annawan and Seraph. 

While these two brigs were being fitted out, not 
a few items about them appeared in current periodi- 
cals. Thus, Niles's Register printed two during the 

Another Memorable Exploring Expedition 121 

month of October, 1829. On the 3d of the month 
it quoted the following from the National Journal: 

"Polar Expedition. It is said that Mr. Rey- 
nolds, the lecturer on and an untiring advocate of 
an expedition to the south pole, although defeated 
in every attempt to induce the government to aid 
his enterprise, has succeeded in obtaining the assist- 
ance of a party of adventurous capitalists, and is 
about to carry his long cherished design into effect. 
A paragraph in the New Bedford Mercury states 
that Mr. Reynolds and Captain Palmer had been in 
that place for some days, preparing one of the finest 
vessels ever built in that or any other port, for an 
exploring expedition to the South Sea. Captain 
Palmer had shipped part of the crew, prepared boats 
of the first construction, and obtained other articles 
for the voyage. The brig was to leave New Bed- 
ford, in a few days, for New York, where she will 
receive on board the remainder of her outfit, previ- 
ous to her departure. Nothing is said as to any 
other vessel to be employed in the service, nor is 
the time for her departure stated. It is understood 
that the expedition is to be under the direction of 
Mr. Reynolds, and it will depart accompanied by 
the best wishes of the country for a safe voyage and 
a successful result of the enterprise." 

On October 24th the Register quoted the follow- 
ing from the New York Enquirer: 

122 Captain Nathaniel Brown Palmer 

"The South Sea Expedition. The brig Anna- 
wan, the flagship of the expedition, dropped down 
to the lower bay, yesterday, and will proceed to sea 
this morning. Thus, after three years of perse- 
verance and industry Mr. Reynolds finds himself 
upon the ocean, in search of the undiscovered islands 
of the south. In addition to the commercial impor- 
tance of this expedition it is highly important in a 
national point of view. Whatever lands may be 
discovered by Mr. Reynolds and his enterprising 
associates will become the property of the United 
States. The stores of science will be Increased by 
the products of far-distant islands, as yet unknown 
to civilized man, and curiosity may, perchance, be 
gratified by something new. 

"We visited the Annawan on Thursday. She Is a 
fine vessel and a very fast sailer. She is furnished 
with an excellent library, and all the instruments 
necessary for such an expedition. She has a stout 
and hardy crew, an experienced captain, and first rate 
officers. After the commercial objects of the expe- 
dition shall have been accomplished, Mr. Reynolds 
intends to sail round the icy circle, and push through 
the first opening that he finds. Success to him. 

"Mr. R. is accompanied by Dr. Eights, of Albany, 
a gentleman of talents and scientific accomplish- 

Editor Niles of the Register added the following 
comment on the statement that any islands dis- 

Another Memorable Exploring Expedition 123 

covered would become the property of the United 
States : 

*'We much doubt this. We should suppose that 
they would belong to Mr. Reynolds and his associ- 
ates — if discovery can give a title! It is a private 
enterprise, and we are not at all willing that the 
United States should have colonies." 

Another record of the expedition is found in 
"Fanning's Voyages" (pp. 478-488), in a report 
submitted by Captain Pendleton to Captain Edmund 
Fanning, the chief financier of the expedition. This 
report shows that the expedition was much more 
ambitious than the newspaper accounts indicated. 
For, after locating the islands supposed to lie in 
the seas southwest of Cape Horn, the vessels were 
to go to the North Pacific to explore the unknown 
waters there. It was not doubted that the islands 
below Cape Horn would be found. It was assumed 
that full cargoes of furs would be secured from 
them. But the furs were to be shipped home from 
Valparaiso on some handy freighter, and then the 
explorers were to sail on to the Alaska waters. It 
was intended to go to the region where the Pribilov 
Islands with their herds of fur seals lie. 

Still other records of this expedition are found 
in notes made by Captain Alexander Palmer, but if 
Captain Nat ever wrote anything about it the manu- 
script has been lost. 

It appears, now, that J. N. Reynolds and a scien- 

124 Captain Nathaniel Brown Palmer 

tist named J. F. Watson sailed on the Annawan. 
Dr. James Eights, a naturalist living in Albany, was 
also with the Annawan. 

The Seraph completed her outfit at Stonington 
and sailed on October i6, 1829, under orders to 
meet the Annawan "at the distance of four leagues 
south from the light on the east end of Long 
Island." The two brigs failed to meet, however, 
because of "a strong breeze from the eastward 
which soon increased to a heavy gale and so con- 
tinued for three days." Each brig therefore headed 
away for North Port Hatchet Bay, in Staten Island, 
which had been appointed for the next rendezvous. 

A memorandum left by Captain Alexander 
Palmer of the schooner Penguin, says that Captain 
Nat, in the Annawan, arrived at North Port 
Hatchet Bay, Staten Island, on January 5, 1830, 
and found the Penguin awaiting him. The two ves- 
sels remained in the bay until January 14, when 
they sailed for the Sea Elephant Islands, in the South 
Shetland group. For about a month the two crews 
were employed gathering such seal skins as could 
be found together with sea elephant oil. Various 
harbors were visited, including Ship Harbor where 
the wreck of the brig Clothier lay high on the rocks. 

Soon after the Palmers left North Port Hatchet 
the Seraph arrived. She remained there until Janu- 
ary 22, when she sailed on to the South Shetlands. 
There is no detailed account of what she did there, 
but it is stated that she did not meet the Palmers. 

Another Memorable Exploring Expedition 125 

The Annawan and the Penguin left the South 
Shetlands on February 23, 1830, and sailed westerly 
to search for the two Islands supposed to exist there, 
as reported by the whalers. How many skins and 
how much oil they had secured meantime is not 
known. But the summer season was now well spent 
and the weather, bad at best, grew steadily worse 
as the days passed. Snow storm followed snow 
storm. The ice formed on deck and on the rigging 
so swiftly that the crews were obliged to cut it away 
to prevent foundering. It was with extreme diffi- 
culty that they could handle the ropes and sails. 
They were continuously wet with the freezing spray 
and there was no fire in either the cabin or the fore- 
castle by which they could warm their stiffened 
limbs. But they persevered until the two brigs had 
covered the region lying between the parallels of 
52° and 62° 33' south latitude and the meridians of 
61° and 103° 03' west longitude, wherein the islands 
for which they were searching were supposed to lie. 
Captain Alexander Palmer wrote as follows about 
the search: 

*'No land was discovered. Two voyages, as it 
Is termed, were broken up. Many of the crew were 
disabled. . . . This cruise furnished an example 
that no sealer ever wished to imitate, namely to 
search for land southwest of Cape Horn. . . . On 
March 19th gave up the search, being convinced 
that the reported land was not there." 

126 Captain Nathaniel Brown Palmer 

In the meantime the Seraph, after taking a few 
furs at the Shetlands, also sailed in search of the 
islands and Captain Pendleton's report says : 

"We then had a lengthy cruise of much anxiety 
and suffering toward the icy region for the dis- 
covery of lands to the westward of Palmer Land, 
and likewise in search of the land said to have been 
seen by Captains Macy and Gardiner to the south- 
westward of Cape Horn, of neither of which we 
were fortunate enough to make any discovery In all 
that time; nor, in fact, had we the encouragement 
of passing in the vicinity of any land other than that 
afforded by the occasional sight of birds, seals, 
drift, &c. 

"By this time our crews were much worn down 
by fatigue, and from their being almost constantly 
wet In this region of rough sea and cold rugged 
weather, with at the same time alarming symptoms 
of that dread disease the scurvy making its appear- 
ance; it was considered most advisable to bear up 
and proceed for the coast of Chili, there to refresh 
and recruit our men, and to replenish our wood and 

The Seraph arrived at Mocha Island on the coast 
of Chili early in May and there fell in with the 
Annawan and the Penguin. The three captains then 
began discussing the voyage to the North Pacific, 
but the crews of all three vessels at once refused to 
^o. They had shipped under the lay system of pay 

Another Memorable Exploring Expedition 127 

— no furs, no pay. The officers were buoyed up to 
endure hardship by their ambition to become known 
as successful explorers. In spite of — indeed, be- 
cause of — their failure thus far, they were eager to 
go on, but the sailors had no such incentive and 
their hope of profit had failed. There was no 
attack upon the officers, but when they learned that 
further exploration was before them they began to 
desert in spite of the uncivihzed condition of the ter- 
ritory off which they were lying. The Pendleton 
report says*: 

"It became necessary for Captain Palmer to put 
into Valparaiso with the Annawan and deliver a 
portion of his crew over to the United States consul 
there. This was the cause of so great delay that It 
became too late in the season to enable me to act 
according to your instructions and proceed to the 
unexplored parts of the northern Pacific, coast of 
Japan, eastern coast of Asia, &c." 

After a consultation with Captain Nat, Captain 
Pendleton decided to go down to the lower end of 
Chili and establish friendly relations with the 
Aurocanlan Indians, hoping thus "to procure a good 
collection of furs, seal skins, &c.," which could be 
"forwarded home," and thus employ the crews 
profitably while waiting for the next season during 
which they could sail for the northern waters. But 
while the crews were at first satisfied with this move, 
and many hair seal skins and some furs were 

128 Captain Nathaniel Brown Palmer 

secured, the sailors began to desert once more as 
soon as the cruise to the North Pacific was again 
discussed. It then became necessary to sail for 
home before the crews were so far depleted that 
the vessels could not be handled. 

In the meantime Reynolds and Watson were 
landed among the Indians, with whom they remained 
after the vessels sailed for home, hoping thus to 
establish friendly relations for the benefit of future 
trade, for which it was the intention of Captain Nat, 
at least, to return. 

In connection with this exploring expedition it 
seems worth noting that in 1841, Captain Dough- 
erty, of the whaler /. Stewart, reported that he had 
seen an island in south latitude 59° 20' and longitude 
119° or 120° west. Then Captain Keates, of the 
ship Louisa, in 1859, reported an island in the same 
region. This island is marked on the chart as 
Dougherty's, but it was not seen by the ship Nimrod, 
which was in the locality named in 1909, nor by 
the magnetic survey ship Carnegie, which was there 
in 19 1 5. A letter from the Hydrographic Office, 
Navy Department, Washington, dated May 5, 
1 92 1, says the office has no record of Swain's 
Island, and that the existence of Dougherty's 
Island "is considered somewhat doubtful." 

Another record of this exploring expedition is an 
advertisement, clipped from a local paper, of the 
"cargo of the brig Seraph, from the South Seas, to 
be sold at auction on Monday, August 29, 1831, at 

Another Memorable Exploring Expedition 129 

2 o'clock P. M." She had brought home 2,024 skins 
of the fur seal and 13,000 of the hair seal. The 
number taken by the Palmers is not given in the 
records, but since they were at the Shetlands in 
advance of the Seraph, and also arrived on the coast 
of Chili in advance, it is reasonable to suppose that 
they did at least as well as Captain Pendleton. It 
is likely that a small profit was realized out of the 

In spite of energy and persistence, the chief ob- 
ject of the expedition remained unachieved, but even 
so, and even if a loss was incurred, the work seems 
now to have been worth while if only as an illus- 
tration of the enterprise of the American sailor of 
the sail in the days when the American merchant 
marine was making its most vigorous growth. 



WHILE the results of the expedition de- 
scribed In the last chapter ended the 
ambition of the Stonlngtonians to engage 
in another of the kind, they were encouraged by 
the outlook for trade on the west coast of South 
America to make one more venture to that region. 
The natives at various points on the coast were in 
the habit of gathering skins of both kinds of seals, 
and they accumulated the hides of cattle as well. 
These they were glad to exchange for goods from 
the United States. While the vast heras of fur 
seals which had formerly resorted to the island of 
Juan Fernandez had been well-nigh exterminated 
some yet came to the beaches, and there were men 
living on the island (it was a Chileno penal station) 
who made a business of collecting the skins for sale 
to passing whalers. 

On the whole, it appeared to Captain Palmer that 
a good profit might be made and he fitted out the 
Annawan for trade there. Two accounts of this 
voyage remain. One was written from memory by 
Second Mate George Hubbard, sometime after the 
brig returned home. The other was written by 
Frederick T. Bush, formerly U. S. Consul at Hong 


Captured by Convicts on Juan Fernandez 131 

Kong, following an account of the voyage given 
him by Captain Nat. 

The Annawan carried a crew of eleven men, all 
told, and Mrs. Palmer sailed with her husband. 
Th fact that the wife ventured on such a voyage 
shows that she and the captain enjoyed life together 
so much that they were willing to risk the dangers 
rather than be separated. 

On the way to the Horn, as the second "mate 
wrote, "we improved every opportunity of making 
a passage," which means, of course, that the cap- 
tain "carried on." Off the River Plate a pampero 
broke the foretopsail yard, but the crew soon made 
and crossed a new one, and the Annawan continued 
to improve her opportunities for making a passage. 
It had been said of the captain, when in command 
of the brig Francis ^ in 1827, that he drove her "until 
the staves," with which she was loaded, "floated 
through her seams." He was making a reputation 
for swift passages that was to be of value to him 

When the Horn was astern the Annawan headed 
for Juan Fernandez. Mrs. Palmer wanted to see 
the island made famous by Alexander Selkirk, 
whose life there had inspired the story of Robin- 
son Cr/isoe. The captain hoped to secure seal skins 
and he was confident of obtaining quantities of fresh 
provisions. The Annawan arrived within view of 
the island on the last day of December, 1831. Says 
Hubbard^s account: 

132 Captain Nathaniel Brown Palmer 

"In the morning, being quite handy to the Island, 
Captain Palmer took our small boat, with two sea- 
men, and started for the shore, the brig lying off 
and on." 

About two hours later a Chlleno brig, which had 
also been lying off and on, eased her sheets and ran 
down within hail of the Annawan, where one of her 
officers told the American crew that the convicts on 
the Island had overpowered their keepers and were 
in full control. 

It was so. The Chilenos had supposed that the 
island afforded an absolutely safe prison for their 
felons, but the convicts had not only taken charge 
of the island*; they were at that moment preparing 
to use the Annawan as a means of escaping to the 

When the Annawan was first seen approaching 
the Island the convicts had been greatly troubled be- 
cause they supposed she would hasten to Valparaiso 
and bring a warship to subjugate them. But when 
they saw the captain on his way to the shore they 
determined to capture the vessel and make their 
escape In her. To this end a squad of well-armed 
men was placed in ambush near the usual landing. 
Wholly unsuspicious. Captain Palmer came to the 
beach where he and his men pulled the boat up to 
a safe distance above the tide. Then when the 
three started up the slope the convicts surrounded 
them, blindfolded their eyes and led them to the 

Captured by Convicts on Juan Fernandez 133 

prison chapel where the leaders In the mutiny were 
in waiting. Any attempt to resist at that time would 
have been suicidal and none was made. 

When In the chapel the three were led to the 
altar, turned to face the assembled mob and then 
the blinders were removed. For a few moments no 
one spoke a word. The captain saw before him 
more than 100 outlaws of whom some were red- 
handed highwaymen, and some were savage pirates, 
the offscourings of the Seven Seas, who had fled to 
the Chileno coast to escape the vengeance due for 
crimes committed elsewhere. 

Finally, one of the convicts proposed that the 
captain be killed as a first step In the work of cap- 
turing the Annawan. The mob shouted approval. 
The captain was again blindfolded and was then 
placed against one wall of the church while several 
men with loaded muskets were ordered to take a 
position ready to shoot him. But In the meantime, 
by a sign and a spoken appeal the captain had told 
any one In the mob who was able to understand him 
that he was a member of the ancient honorable 
fraternity of Freemasons — he begged for help In 
a way that no brother Mason ever failed to recog- 
nize and none ever ignored. 

The convicts were a hellish crew, but among them 
was one man, a political prisoner, who was a Mason; 
and as It happened he was the leader who had 
planned the overthrowing of the prison authorities. 
Very adroitly, now, this leader explained to the 

134 Captain Nathaniel Brown Palmer 

mob that It would be better to spare the life of the 
captain and take him along to handle the brig in 
her passage with the convicts to the mainland. Then 
he ostentatiously told the captain to choose between 
carrying the convicts to the mainland at a point 
which they should choose, or facing the firing squad. 
The captain, perceiving that this leader was a 
brother Mason, at once agreed to take orders from 
him. The captain was thereupon released. 

When the blinder was removed from his eyes 
Captain Palmer suggested that he should send 
orders to his mate to prepare the brig for the com- 
pany to come. This was a reasonable thing to do, 
for the brig was in no shape to carry so many pas- 
sengers, and he was allowed to write a note which 
his sailors carried off to the brig. 

First of all in the note, however. Captain Palmer 
told the mate to clear out a spare stateroom, in 
which bread had been stored, and put Mrs. Palmer 
in it and lock the door. As thus prepared this room 
was a dungeon and it was arranged so that no port, 
even, was open to admit air or light; for it was 
absolutely necessary to take every precaution to 
prevent the outlaws learning that she was on board. 

When this work was done, the mate went on with 
the other preparations for the reception of the con- 
victs, but long before the brig was ready, the mob 
came howling off in such boats as the settlement 
afforded. And when they arrived, Mrs. Palmer, 
sitting in her darkened prison, heard the shrill voices 

Captured by Convicts on Juan Fernandez 135 

of women mingling with the coarser shouts of the 
men; for there were female as well as male des- 
peradoes among the convicts. 

As a matter of fact, the coming of the women 
was contrary to a promise made by the mob leader. 
Captain Palmer had learned, as soon as he was 
released from his place before the firing squad, that 
the women were also determined to go in the brig, 
and he had remonstrated with the leader. He had 
perceived instantly that if the women were taken on 
board they would necessarily be cared for in the 
Annawan^s cabin. If they were taken into the cabin 
they would, sooner or later, learn that Mrs. Palmer 
was in the spare stateroom. But that was not all 
the trouble to be feared in connection with the 
women, for it was certain that the convicts would 
fight over them, perhaps even before the brig could 
leave the island, and how such a fight would end 
no one could foresee. At all hazards Captain 
Palmer was determined to leave the women on the 

But when the men began to enter the small boats 
in order to go off to the brig, the women, being free 
to roam around at will, ran down to the beach and 
clambered into the boats — and here they were along- 
side the Annawan, making more noise than a flock 
of gulls around a dead whale. 

But as they climbed over the rail, gabbling and 
laughing, Captain Nat returned to the Annawan, 
Ten years had passed since he had stood unabashed 

136 Captain Nathaniel Brown Palmer 

before Captain Bellingshausen in the cabin of the 
Russian frigate. Then he had been tall, slender 
and boyish; now he was tall and powerful and of 
commanding presence — a fully developed autocrat 
of the quarterdeck. 

Walking across the Annawan's deck to the rail 
over which the women were climbing, he ordered 
them all to return at once to the land. The women 
screamed and squalled and begged as if they were 
suffering tortures, but the convicts — the men — 
instinctively obeyed the order and took them all 
back to the beach. One may search the records of 
the sea for all times without finding a more striking 
illustration of the power of a dominating mind. 

Meantime, Mrs. Palmer, sitting in the darkness 
of her little prison, heard the shrieks of the women, 
but did not hear the imperious order of her husband. 
So she believed that the women were being tortured 
and she suffered indescribably through sympathy 
and through fear that she might also meet the fate 
which seemed to come upon them. 

In time the male convicts were all taken on 
board — 104 of them — and the brig was got under 
way for the mainland. Then, as night came on, the 
wind failed. The convicts, fearing that a Chileno 
warship would come, were unable to sleep and they 
therefore passed the night on deck in groups that 
surged to and fro, cursing incessantly, and always 
in a state of mind where but a slight incentive was 
needed to set them in deadly conflict with the crew 

Captured by Convicts on Juan Fernandez 137 

of the vessel and with each other. At daybreak it 
was seen that the brig had drifted nearer to the 
island instead of making headway toward the main. 
At that, some one loudly declared that the brig's 
captain had held her there In order to deliver her 
to a coming man-o'-war, and the cry was followed 
by a mutiny. The mob took possession of the 

For a time the outlook was most serious, but the 
leader of the mob worked with the captain and con- 
vinced the mob that no one could be properly 
blamed for the position of the brig; and while the 
argument was slowly seeping into the minds of the 
desperate convicts, a fair breeze came and sent the 
brig on her way. 

Of the day-to-day incidents of the Annawan^s 
passage to the coast of Chili there is no record, but 
none is needed. It is enough to know that the wind 
was so light that ten days were consumed In making 
the 400 miles, and that during all that time more 
than 100 desperadoes were raging around the deck 
of the little brig, day and night. 

During this time Mrs. Palmer was, of course, held 
in her prison. The captain did not dare to speak 
to her or to make a definite signal. But as oppor- 
tunity was afforded he paced the deck above her 
head and there issued orders to his crew in a voice 
which she could hear, and he thus assured her that 
he was as yet unharmed and in command. 

Finally, the land was seen and a leading breeze 

138 Captain Nathaniel Brown Palmer 

drove the Annawan to a practicable landing north of 
Copiapa, where, screaming with delight, the outlaws 
crowded into the boats and were landed. 

When freed from the convicts the Annawan went 
to Pisco, Peru, where some seal skins were bought. 
Thence she went to Callao, where the U. S. Ship 
Plymouth^ Master Commandant Francis H. Greg- 
ory, commanding, happened to be at anchor. To 
the astonishment of the Annawan's company the 
naval sailors manned the yards and gave three cheers 
as the brig sailed into the anchorage. Later it was 
learned that Captain Gregory had heard about the 
capture of the Annawan and he was at the point of 
sailing to look for her when she came into port. 

Later still the Annawan went to Valparaiso 
where it was learned that the convicts, after landing, 
had fled inland. Then with a lack of foresight 
common to men of such a mental caliber, they had 
preyed upon the inhabitants — even those who were 
friendly — until an appeal to the Government for 
help brought a regiment of soldiers who rounded 
up the entire mob. 

While the Annawan was yet at anchor at Val- 
paraiso the convicts were brought there and re- 
embarked for their prison island, and the vessel 
which carried them passed close to the brig. The 
convicts were seen to be a most disheartened lot, 
but when, in passing, they recognized the Annawan 
and her crew, they shouted repeatedly, 

Captured by Convicts on Juan Fernandez 139 

**Los huenos Americanos! Los huenos Ameri- 

They were desperadoes, the offscourings of the 
Seven Seas, but during that passage of ten days from 
Juan Fernandez to the mainland, they had yet 
found the master of the Annawan and her crew 
muy simpatico. 

An incident occurring in one of the ports visited, 
as described by Second Mate Hubbard, gives an 
unusual view of Captain Palmer. During a previous 
visit to the port Captain Palmer had made friends 
with the Captain of the Port, an important official 
on that coast. Nevertheless, when the Annawan 
returned there, and Mate Dudley Robinson took a 
boat ashore to get water, he and the crew were 
captured by a band of armed men who had been 
hiding in the brush near shore. Why this was done 
none of the crew could learn. Hubbard continues : 

"Soon after Capt. P. was Informed of the arrest 
he went on shore and found out the trouble. He 
became greatly enraged and called on me to bring 
my gun ; and with himself with a gun and both well 
loaded, and [with] two men in a small boat, we 
landed on the beach, swearing vengeance unless our 
men were immediately released." 

Then the Captain of the Port came on the run 
and the Annawans were released and provided with 

140 Captain Nathaniel Brown Palmer 

Business was so good on the coast that when the 
Annawan was filled with products, Captain Palmer 
freighted a ship home and continued trading until 
July 9, 1833, when he sailed for home. The last 
entry in the brig's log (a most interesting old blank 
book made of soft paper sewed with a single stitch 
into a cover of unhemmed canvas) contains the fol- 

"Wednesday, 25 Sept. Remarks on board. 

"This day comes in with moderate breezes from 
the westward. All dragging sail set. At 1 130 made 
Montaug Light. At 10 A. M. anchored in Stoning- 
ton Harbor." 



AFTER Captain Nathaniel Brown Palmer re- 
turned home from the voyage to the Cape 
Horn region, described In the last chapter, 
he entered upon a career which is of especial interest 
in any history of the American merchant marine. 
For ever since the end of the War of 1812, Ameri- 
can shipping had been securing a leading place in 
the trade between the United States and Europe, 
and the captain was now to take a prominent part 
in the work of furthering the American advance, 
and In sustaining it in every forward step made 
thereafter. And this is to say that he was, first of 
all, to become a leader among the designers and 
commanders of the packet ships of which all Ameri- 
cans then made boast; and later, when the demand 
for fast ships in the China tea trade arose, and 
brought into existence what have since been called 
the Yankee clippers, he was the designer, and the 
captain as well, of the first of that famous fleet. 
In fact, a time came when the British Admiralty 
were so enthusiastically interested in a clipper of his 
design that they minutely measured her, as she lay 
in a drydock, hoping thus to learn the secret of a 


142 Captain Nathaniel Brown Palmer 

record passage which she had made from Canton to 

For more than fifty years at this writing — in fact, 
ever since the Civil War — the editors of our maga- 
zines and of our newspapers have been writing over 
and over again that the American clipper ships were 
in all respects superior to (meaning more efficient 
than) all other ships afloat in their day. So often 
has this statement appeared in print that every back- 
woodsman in the nation has read it, and it is uni- 
versally accepted as true beyond question. 

Unhappily, however, a study of the situation 
shows that while some American ships were more 
efficient than any affoat in their classes, the bald 
statement, as printed, lacks discrimination; and 
ignorance of the facts is especially deplorable be- 
cause our legislators who are now (1921) trying 
to sustain our over-built merchant fleet, could serve 
the industry far better if they knew just when and 
in what respects our splendid ships of the sail, 
called packets and clippers, were superior to those 
of European construction; and when and wherein 
those same ships failed to maintain the standing 
which they had honestly secured. 

Because Captain Palmer had, as said, a notable 
part in the work of giving our ships of the sail their 
reputation, and because, too, he was concerned when 
those ships lost caste, the whole story of the fleet 
as well as his work with them, must be told in con- 
siderable detail. 

The Yankee Packets 143 

It is Important to observe first of all that our 
clippers composed a fleet entirely distinct from that 
of the packets. The packets were passenger car- 
riers as well as freighters plying between the prin- 
cipal ports of the United States and Europe, and 
they sailed on regular schedules. The clippers were 
freighters only and they were built for the China 
trade. The packets sailed when the hour came, 
regardless of the amount of cargo on board. The 
clippers were loaded to the hatch coamings at every 

The name packet was first applied to a vessel by 
the British. Because the Empire was spread around 
the world It was necessary to provide means for 
carrying mails at frequent and regular Intervals be- 
tween London and the various colonies. For this 
purpose the Admiralty built swift brigs, and one of 
these was despatched at stated intervals to this and 
that port in the colonies. Perhaps it was because 
the letters were done up In packets that the vessels 
came to be called by the same name. 

As the mall lines did not receive a profitable in- 
come from the freight and passengers carried. In 
addition to the mails, no one thought it worth while 
to establish a packet line at private expense, even 
between such ports as New York and Liverpool, 
until long after the American colonies had developed 
Into an independent nation. But in the meantime a 
packet business had developed on the Hudson River 
which proved to be at once remarkably convenient 

144 Captain Nathaniel Brown Palmer 

for shippers and profitable for the owners of the 
vessels. Because of the character of the traffic on 
the river the sloops which were used for passengers 
as well as freight, had regular days of departure 
from the various towns and for the return, as well. 
They sailed from their 'landings at the advertised 
time regardless of the amount of freight on board, 
or of the number of passengers. 

Because of the regularity of the sailings, farmers 
drove forty miles and more to deliver produce to 
sloops bound down to New York and passengers 
came from towns in Massachusetts to Poughkeepsie 
to sail thence to New York rather than travel by 
stage over the highway through Connecticut. 

The packet service which originated on the river 
was naturally extended to the alongshore trades, 
and in every such extension it was found that a 
regular service was more profitable than one where- 
in the vessel awaited a full cargo before sailing. 

In 1816, while young Palmer was sailing before 
the mast on Long Island Sound, Jeremiah Thomp- 
son, Isaac Wright, Benjamin Marshall, and a few 
other capitalists of New York, organized a com- 
pany to establish a packet service between New York 
and Liverpool. It is to be noted that this organiza- 
tion was effected to provide an improved service. 
Theretofore the ships in the Liverpool trade had 
sailed only when they were full of cargo, and the 
consequent delays were especially annoying to pas- 
sengers, for the reason that they were kept waiting 

The Yankee •Packets 145 

in uncertainty for days and even weeks at a stretch. 
When the new line was established passengers and 
shippers alike were fully assured that a ship would 
sail on the first day of each month, regardless of 
the amount of freight in the hold or the number of 
passengers in the cabin; and regardless of the 
weather, as well. 

The ships provided were not the largest afloat 
(400 to 500 tons), but they were of the best con- 
struction — coppered and copper-fastened. They 
were fit to carry sail in all weathers and the cabin 
accommodations were the most comfortable afloat. 

The success of this line, which was called the 
Black Ball, was so great that other lines were soon 
established in competition, and lines from other 
ports also came into existence. Of these American 
packet lines McCulloch's "Commercial Dictionary," 
published in London in 1839, contained the follow- 
ing in its description of the commerce of New York: 

"The establishment of regular packet lines from 
New York to foreign ports, and also to every prin- 
cipal port in the United States, has produced a new 
era in the commerce of the city, and redounded 
equally to the benefit of the enterprising individuals 
by whom they were projected, and the public. The 
principal intercourse is carried on with Liverpool; 
there being about twenty packet ships distributed 
in four lines employed at present (1836) in main- 
taining a regular communication with that port. A 

146 Captain Nathaniel Brown Palmer 

dozen packet ships are also employed in the trade 
between New York and London, and fifteen in the 
trade between New York and Havre. These ships 
vary in size from 450 tons, the burden of the 
smallest, to 800 tons. Their tonnage has latterly 
been increasing; and, at an average, it may now be 
estimated at about 600 tons. 

"These ships are all American property and built 
chiefly in New York. They are probably the finest 
and fastest sailing merchant vessels in the world; 
being beautifully modelled, of the best workman- 
ship, and fitted up with every convenience for pas- 
sengers, and in the most expensive style. The 
safety, regularity and expedition with which they 
perform their voyages is quite astonishing. The 
average length of a voyage from Liverpool and 
Portsmouth to New York may be estimated at about 
34 days, and from the latter to the former at about 
20 days. The Independence^ of 730 tons, Captain 
Nye, made the voyage from New York to Liverpool, 
in the course of the present year, in 14 days; and 
the Toronto, of 650 tons, Captain Griswold, made 
the voyage from New York to Portsmouth in the 
same-time. And it is material to observe that these 
voyages are not reckoned from land to land but 
from port to port, 

"Cabin passage to New York from London and 
Liverpool 35 guineas; from New York to London 
and Liverpool 140 dollars; a cabin passage to New 
York from Havre 140 dollars and from New York 

The Yankee Packets 147 

to Havre the same. This includes provisions, wines, 
beds, &c., so that the passengers have no occasion 
to provide anything except personal apparel. 

"Each ship has a separate cabin for ladies; each 
stateroom, in the respective cabins, will accommo- 
date two passengers; but a whole stateroom may be 
secured for one individual at the rate of i>^ pas- 
sage, that is 52j^ guineas to New York. 

"The rate of steerage passage varies, in the course 
of the year, considerably; depending upon the num- 
ber of ships and the number of passengers going at 
the time. ... It fluctuates from three to six 
guineas for each full-grown person; and children 
under fourteen years are taken at half price. . . . 
For these rates the ship provides nothing but fire 
and water; the passengers provide their own pro- 
visions, bedding, &c. 

"Steam Packets. — It has been proposed to es- 
tablish steam packets between New York and 
Valentia harbour, on the west coast of Ireland; but 
as yet little progress has been made in the under- 
taking. It may be doubted, indeed, seeing how well 
the intercourse is maintained by the sailing packets, 
whether the introduction of steam packets would be 
of material service." 

The "Dictionary" also says that the prices 
charged passengers by the packets were always at 
least 40% higher than those of the hit-or-miss car- 
riers, and in some cases they were 100% higher. 

148 Captain Nathaniel Brown Palmer 

The freight rates of the packets were around 
33 1/3% higher. And that Is to say that the ships 
which gave the most satisfactory service secured the 
cream of the traffic (more especially the package 
goods), and all at a highly profitable rate. Service 
was, and always Is, worth an extra price. 

The exigencies of the packet trade naturally cre- 
ated a demand for captains who were able to handle 
ships under all circumstances, and more especially 
to keep them going at the highest possible speed. A 
packet captain needed, first of all, a knowledge of 
what his ship could endure under a press of canvas 
— he needed to know when he might spread more 
canvas to the gale and when he must reef down 
to save the spars. Having this knowledge It was 
imperative that he should also have the courage to 
carry sail when an ordinary captain would reef down 
— to carry as much sail in the midwatch as in the 
morning watch. It was a courageous seaman who 
could order the crew to shake out the reefs in the 
topsails at the call of the watch at midnight, even 
though the power of the gale had moderated some- 

Of little less Importance was the personal bear- 
ing which made the crew feel that the captain was 
an absolute monarch whose orders iuust be obeyed 
under all circumstances. In pleasant weather this 
was a matter of less Importance, but when the ship 
was driven until the timbers groaned and the rig- 
ging shrieked under the strain, it was absolutely 

The Yankee Packets 149 

necessary that the crew run with all their might at 
the order to reef down. It was only by their utmost 
exertions that the crew could then save the canvas 
or even the ship itself from destruction, and a man 
who could compel them to work in that way was 
needed. The owners of the packet lines searched 
the ports of the nation to find the men they needed. 

Because many books, and more particularly novels, 
have declared that the seamen were brutally treated 
on the American packets, it seems worth while to 
give a paragraph to the facts here. While the 
packets were increasing in number and efficiency 
it appears that seamen were scarce. To keep their 
ships well manned the packet captains paid higher 
wages than any others in the world. When the 
foremast hand in the navy received but $12 a month 
the sailors on the packets were paid $17 to $18. 
There is a record of a packet race in which one ship 
(the Sheridan) carried a crew of forty picked men 
who received $25 a month. The food supplied the 
sailors was of good quality and ample in quantity. 

Because of these conditions and because the pas- 
sage was usually short a remarkable class of men 
came to the packet forecastles. They were all for- 
eigners save a few American youngsters shipped 
solely with a view to promotion — never to join the 
forecastle "labor class." There never was a fore- 
castle class among American seamen. The for- 
eigners were a husky lot on the topsail yard, but as 
a rule men who preferred this service because it 

150 Captain Nathaniel Brown Palmer 

transferred them swiftly from the brothels of one 
port to those of another. They were well able to 
"hand, reef and steer," but they knew nothing of 
the nice work of the "marlinspike sailor," because 
they never had opportunity to learn It. Such work 
was done on the long voyages only. 

When these foreigners came for the first time to 
the packets they had sea habits which usually made 
trouble. The best of them came from the service of 
the British East India Company ships all of which 
sent down royal yards every night, even in the finest 
weather, and whereon the topgallant sails were 
furled and a reef was turned into the topsails when- 
ever there was the least sign of worse weather. 
Naturally such sailors moved In a leisurely fashion 
— at first. A man who had been called to shorten 
sail might stop long enough to take a chew of to- 
bacco before responding. He was also likely to 
fail In showing the respect due to a superior officer, 
for discipline was slack on most European ships, but 
the unpardonable sin was failure to "show willing" 
when ordered to work. As to the worst class of 
foreign sailors they were simply the offscourings of 
the ports — vicious brutes who were always looking 
for trouble. Taken as a whole. It must be said that 
the most difficult crews to control that were found 
afloat in the packet days were those in the packet 

The master of a packet needed knowledge, skill, 
and courage as a seaman, but more than all else 

The Yankee Packets i^t 

needed the ability to maintain discipline at all times 
while yet influenced by a strong sense of justice. 
Finally he needed the tact by which selfish, sick and 
unreasonable passengers are handled when at sea. 
As said, the owners of the packets of New York 
were constantly searching the ports of the nation for 
captains who were in all respects fit for the impor- 
tant post on the quarterdeck of a Liverpool liner. 

They were searching when Captain Palmer re- 
turned from the voyage around the Horn in the 
Annawan, and they then came to hear the story of 
his adventure with the mutinous convicts. The cap- 
tain was already well known among owners of 
coasters, at least. They knew that he had non- 
chalantly sailed a fifty-foot sloop through the gales 
and among the clashing ice-fields on the rim of the 
Antarctic Continent, and that he had fitted out and 
sailed a brig on an exploring expedition through the 
unknown seas southwest of Cape Horn. They had 
discussed his ability as a diplomat when dealing first 
with the sensitive lieutenants of Bolivar and then 
with the titled and snobbish officers in command in 
Cuba — officers who held all Americans in contempt. 
To the record thus made was added now the story 
of the Annawan at Juan Fernandez and the owners 
of the packets were convinced that the young cap- 
tain from Stonington was of the breed needed for 
packet ship command. 

The packet manager to act first on the opinion 
that Captain Palmer was of the right build, was 

152 Captain Nathaniel Brown Palmer 

E. K. Collins, managing owner of a line of ships 
trading between New York and New Orleans. He 
placed the captain in command of the ship Himts- 
ville. It is worth noting that Captain Alexander S. 
Palmer, the young brother who had sailed on the 
exploring expedition in the schooner Penguin, was 
also taken into this service and given the command 
of the Louisville. 

As the reader knows, the New Orleans service 
was peculiar in one respect. The passengers who 
were carried were usually from the slave-states — 
either slave owners or in full sympathy with slave 
owning. Those people were, as a rule, seriously 
prejudiced against every one of the Yankee breed. 
To hold the good will of these patrons of the line 
without a sacrifice of principle required diplomacy; 
but it is a matter of record that Palmer w^as called 
"Captain Nat" in New Orleans as he was in Nev/ 

While Captain Palmer was in command of the 
Hiintsville, Collins was considering the feasibility of 
establishing a new packet line between New York 
and Liverpool. The five lines already in that trade 
had given good satisfaction, as McCulloch's "Dic- 
tionary," quoted above, said, but Collins was of the 
opinion that the service rendered might be improved. 
The care and comforts given the passengers, as he 
supposed, were not quite up to date, and he was 
contemplating the initiation of a superior service. 

To learn how Liverpool people might regard the 

The Yankee Packets 153 

establishing of a new line, Collins sent Captain 
Palmer there in 1835. While the report the cap- 
tain made on his return has been lost, it appears 
that Collins, and his associates in the New Orleans 
line, were convinced that the contemplated line 
would prove to be a commercial success. When they 
had come to this decision they determined that new 
ships, especially designed for the trade, should be 
built, and Captain Palmer was employed to make 
the model and superintend the building. 

For, during all the years since he had listened 
to the discussions among the ship carpenters in his 
father's yard at Stonington, Captain Palmer had 
worked over and dreamed about models of ships. 
When telling what he was doing while pacing the 
deck of the fog-bound Hero, on his return from the 
shores of the Antarctic Continent, he said he was 
''building castles in the air." We may believe, from 
what we know of his habit of thought, that he laid 
out a shipyard beside each of those castles and 
that each yard was provided with an ample loft 
wherein the dreamer was to lay down the lines of 
many ships of improved models. At any rate it 
was the captain's manifest and oft-expressed interest 
in the improvement of shipping that led Collins to 
employ him as the designer of the Dramatic Line of 
packets, as the new fleet was named. 



A RECORD of the work done in Brown & Bell's 
shipyard, at the foot of Stanton Street, 
■ New York City, between the years 1821 
and 1847 (printed in Hunt's Merchants' Magazine, 
December, 1848), shows that four ships were built 
there for Collins's Dramatic Line, as follows: 

In 1836 the Garrick and the Sheridan were 
launched. Both were from the same model and each 
measured 927 tons. In 1837 the Siddons was built 
from the same model as the other two, and finally, 
in 1839, the Roscius was built from a new and im- 
proved model, her measurement being 1,009 tons. 
A description of the Roscius, which was printed in 
the New York Express at the time she was launched, 
runs as follows : 

"We have from time to time given descriptions 
of the various ships which have been put afloat. . . . 
We have now another to add — the ship Roscius, 
built by E. K. Collins, belonging to the Dramatic 
Line, and to be commanded by Captain John Col- 
lins. She is the largest that has yet been built, and 
for strength and beauty is a noble specimen of 


Commodore of the Dramatic Line 155 

American shipbuilding. The following are her di- 
mensions : 

"Burden, 1,100 tons; length of main deck, 170 
feet; length of spar deck, 180 feet; breadth of beam, 
36^ feet; depth of hold, 22 feet; height of cabin, 
6^2 feet; height from keelson to main truck, 187 
feet; length of main yard, 75 feet." 

To describe in detail the velvet used upon the 
sofas, the Wilton carpets on the cabin floor, the 
"scarlet marino" drapery, the "white curtains" and 
other features of the cabin, as the Express did, 
would require too much space. It is enough to say 
that she was in this matter more luxuriously pro- 
vided than any ship on salt water. Perhaps it should 
also be noted that she cost $100,000, or $100 a ton, 
and was therefore the most expensive ship in the 
transatlantic trade. It was not because we could 
build wooden ships at a less cost than the Europeans 
that our packets dominated the North Atlantic. It 
was because we could and did build the most efficient 
ships for the trade. 

The peculiarities of the models of our ships shall 
be considered in another chapter wherein the work 
of Captain Palmer in developing the famous fleet 
of American clipper ships is described. Here it 
may suffice to say that while only one of the four 
ships of this line ever broke the record for swift 
passages across the Atlantic in either direction, they 
stood at the head of the procession of the American 

156 Captain Nathaniel Brown Palmer 

packets for all around efficiency before the first 
clipper ship was designed or even thought of. That 
is to say, the record of the ships as a fleet — or say 
squadron — for continuous good and profitable work, 
excelled the records of the other lines of packets. 
The Dramatic Line obtained and held its lead among 
the packets because its ships, year in and year out, 
were the most dependable afloat. 

With the exception of the Roscitis, Captain 
Palmer took command of each of these ships for 
one voyage when it w^as put in commission. He was 
the commodore of the finest fleet of ships in the 
North Atlantic, just twenty-two years after he had 
shipped as a boy of fourteen on a blockade-runner, 
on Long Island Sound, during the War of 18 12. In 
those days sailormen used to hold long arguments 
over the question as to whether the most efficient 
ship masters were those who began sea life before 
the mast or as clerks in the cabin. In the vernacular 
the question was : Is it better to crawl in through the 
hawse pipes and work your way aft, or to blow in 
through the cabin windows? The question is yet 
discussed in a mild, academic way, with no decision 
in view, for the reason that good captains have come 
to the quarterdeck by both routes ; but when the ques- 
tion was argued in the old days those who favored 
the forecastle route were able to point with pride to 
Captain Nat Palmer, one who arrived by working 
his way aft. 

Of Captain Palmer's life as a captain in the Liver- 

Commodore of the Dramatic Line 157 

pool trade few stories are remembered [there Is one 
to be related in the next chapter] because he never 
had any trouble with his crews or any adventures. 
His ship went to sea, made her passage, discharged 
her cargo, took on another and returned home. 
Passengers and cargoes were delivered in excellent 
order. He was highly esteemed because his voyages 
were uneventful. He earned the highest praise be- 
stowed by ship owners and other alongshore people 
when it was said of him that "he never cost the 
underwriters a cent." 

As Captain Palmer was, during these years, grow- 
ing wealthy — gaining through faithful work a posi- 
tion among the "capitalistic class" — a paragraph 
about the pay of the packet captains may be worth 
giving. Like that of the others in the trade the cap- 
tain's pay — his regular salary — was $30 a month. 
To this absurd sum, however, was added 5% of the 
money received for freight, 25% of the money paid 
for cabin passages, and all the money received for 
carrying the mails. The captain was also allowed 
to carry his wife, board free. 

To get an idea about the amount of freight money 
collected for passage, here is a note about the 
Dramatic Line ship Garrick. She was driven ashore 
on the Jersey Beach in January, 1841, and Niles's 
Register, when reporting the fact, announced that 
she was bringing "cargo estimated to be worth 
400,000 dollars — though she was not more than one- 
third loaded." For the cargo on a single passage 

158 Captain Nathaniel Brown Palmer 

the packets sometimes received from $30,000 to 
$50,000 as freight money, and on this the captain 
collected 5%. The number of passengers varied 
from 20 to 100. Because of his very great popu- 
larity among travelers that frequented the packets, 
Captain Nat had a greater number in his cabin than 
the average ship — say 400 in the course of a year, 
at $140 each, of which he received 25%. Of the 
number of letters carried no estimate is to be found, 
but it is to be remembered that the postage rate in 
those days was 24 cents per >^ oz. 

As said. Captain Palmer grew rich rapidly after 
he entered the packet service. And in connection 
with this matter it is to be noted that he, like all the 
captains in the trade, owned a share of a sixteenth 
or an eighth in every ship he commanded, and every 
ship was expected to earn her cost in every year she 
was afloat. 

While the records of the voyages which the cap- 
tain made in the Liverpool service are devoid of 
such incidents as strandings and collisions and fires 
in the hold and dismastings during the gales, there 
is one feature of his work as a master that may yet 
be described, and that was his method of taking the 
ship from her pier to sea, and from the sea to 
her pier, when wind and tide favored. People who 
go to the New York piers in modern days to see 
their friends depart for Europe observe that the 
captain of the steamer, though perched on a high 
bridge, is an inconsequential figure — one, in fact, 

Commodore of the Dramatic Line 159 

who Is not commonly noticed by the people who are 
standing on the pier. If the attention of spectators 
should be especially called to him they may see him 
wave his hand to somebody on or perhaps off the 
bow of the ship — wave It as an order to cast off 
the lines holding the steamer to the pier. Another 
wave or two releases her at other points. Then as 
the water is churned up beneath her stern by the 
revolving propeller she backs slowly into the river, 
where a lot of fussy tugs gather around her and push 
on one bow and on the opposite quarter until she 
is at last headed down toward the sea. Then she 
manages to get away on her course. 

When the wind and the tide served as the Garrick 
lay stern to at her East River pier, Captain Palmer, 
big, burly and commanding, came to the starboard 
side of the quarterdeck and with trumpet in hand 
gave orders, distinctly heard but never boisterous, 
under which the great topsails were spread by sheets 
and halyards flat aback to the breeze, the jibs were 
hoisted and the spanker loosened. The straining 
lines holding the ship to the pier were now cast off, 
and under the impulse of the breeze alone she backed 
into the river where her stern was turned up to the 
north by the handling of the jibs and the bracing of 
the yards on which sails had been set — she was 
backed until she was well clear of the pier — and the 
bow was pointed toward the sea. Then the spanker 
was hauled aft, all the lighter sails and the courses 
were swiftly spread, the staysails were run up be- 

i6o Captain Nathaniel Brown Palmer 

tween the masts and with a throng of enthusiastic 
spectators shouting themselves hoarse in vain efforts 
to express their appreciation of the master's skill, the 
ship fled rippling down the bay. 

More difficult still was bringing the ship to her 
pier at the end of the voyage. Tugs were to be had 
— great, squat, side-wheelers, as homely as sin — but 
when the wind and tide favored Captain Palmer 
would have none of them. Coming up East River 
on the port tack with all plain sail set he stood well 
over to the Brooklyn side until the ship's pier had 
been passed to the exact distance needed. Then he 
turned the ship to the starboard tack, reached across 
to the pier, and while the crew lowered away on 
halyards and hauled up on all clewlines and bunt- 
lines, and yanked at the downhauls hand over hand, 
the clean hull slipped Into her berth without so much 
as scraping her freshly painted side on a string- 
piece, until her fasts were thrown over the timber- 

It is pleasing to recall, now, that when an Ameri- 
can ship master brought his ship to her pier under 
sail the British captains who happened to be in port 
always joined most cordially In the applause which 
greeted the exploit. Moreover, the record-breaking 
feats of all the American packets, and the new 
packets as they appeared, were described in the 
British papers In terms of highest praise. There 
was nothing small about the most energetic rivals of 
the Yankee sailor of the sail. 

Commodore of the Dramatic Line i6i 

It Is therefore proper to Inquire how It came to 
pass that Yankee captains were so far superior to 
those of all other nations. The British themselves 
answered this question for the benefit of their own 
seamen. A committee of Parliament, which had 
been appointed ostensibly to "Inquire Into the cause 
of shipwrecks In the British merchant service," made 
a report which was printed In the London Courier 
on August 1 8 and 20, 1836, and reprinted, In part. 
In the Army and Navy Chronicle (Washington) on 
October 6. The following paragraph appeared In 
that report : 

"American Shipping. — That the committee can- 
not conclude Its labors without calling attention to 
the fact that ships of the United States of America, 
frequenting the ports of England, are stated by sev- 
eral witnesses to be superior to those of a similar 
class amongst the ships of Great Britain, the com- 
manders and officers being generally considered to 
be more competent as seamen and navigators, and 
more uniformly persons of education, than the com- 
manders and officers of British ships of a similar 
size and class trading from England to America; 
while the seamen of the United States are considered 
to be more carefully selected and to be more efficient; 
that American ships sailing from Liverpool to New 
York have a preference over English vessels sailing 
to the same port, both as to freight and rate of In- 
surance ; and, higher wages being given, their whole 
equipment is maintained In a higher state of perfec- 

1 62 Captain Nathaniel Brown Palmer 

tion, so that fewer losses occur. . . . The tempta- 
tions offered by superior wages of American vessels 
cause a large number of British seamen every year 
to leave the service of their own country, and to 
embark in that of the United States, and these, com- 
prising chiefly the most skilful and competent of our 
mariners, produce the double effect of improving 
the efficiency of American crews and in the same 
ratio diminishing the efficiency of the British mer- 
chant service." 

Captain Palmer was conspicuous among those 
American ship masters who were, as the committee 
of Parliament declared, "more uniformly persons of 
education" than British ship masters, but it is to be 
remembered that after he was fourteen years old his 
schooling was secured on board American vessels. 
He had by conscious endeavor educated himself 
throughout his career as foremasthand, second mate, 
mate and master. 

For the American people who are now (1921) 
trying to maintain an overbuilt merchant marine, the 
quotation above from the report of the Committee 
of Parliament contains some of the most important 
statements of fact ever printed. Summed up in a 
single sentence the committee's report said that 
American ships had a "preference over English 
vessels" solely because vessel and crew taken to- 
gether as a unit were more "efficient." The whole 
story of American leadership at sea Is told by that 

Commodore of the Dramatic Line 163 

single word efficient. The cost of our packets at 
an average $90 a ton was higher than the cost of 
British ships of a similar size, and the crews received 
higher wages, but this combination of cost produced 
a more efficient carrier and it was therefore more 

In the earlier years of the century while seals were 
to be had, our ships dominated the fishery. After 
the seals failed, our ships rapidly secured the lead 
in the whale fishery, a lead that was greater than 
any other whaleships had had even when the War 
of 18 12 was raging. Between 18 16 and the advent 
of the steamship, our Liverpool packets were with- 
out foreign competition. But until the year 1844 
the long-haul trade between Canton and civilized 
ports was chiefly in the hands of British shipping. 
There were American ships in the trade that made 
money, but they did not encroach, or say dominate, 
as they did in all other trades of importance. How 
the Yankees gained supremacy in the China trade 
after 1844 is one of the most interesting chapters 
in the history of the sea and the story shall be told 
because of Captain Palmer's part in the work. 



BEFORE describing the work and Influence of 
Captain Palmer upon the American clipper 
fleet It Is necessary to tell why he left the 
packet service. As previously noted, the packet 
service demanded that every ship be driven to the 
last gasp on every passage In either direction. 
There was no weather bureau to give advance notice 
that a storm was Impending, and If such a notice had 
been printed the packet captain would have rejoiced 
to take advantage of the power of the gale. 

Even when the first northeast breath of a West 
India hurricane came, moisture laden, across New 
York Bay at the hour of his departure. Captain 
Palmer hauled his ship Into the stream, scudded 
down the bay to Sandy Hook, discharged his pilot, 
and then, with all plain sail set at least up to top- 
gallant sails, he stood out to sea. The long waves 
— "the dogs coming before their master" — with the 
growing weight of the wind compelled him, in time, 
to decrease the spread, but he did It grudgingly, one 
sail at a time, and only when the ship was reeling 
her lee scuppers into the solid water, and the lee 
yard arms were down to the waves, was a reef turned 
into the topsails. 


Record Passage from Liverpool to New York 165 

While the ship plunged and plowed her way 
to eastward the captain remained on deck, no mat- 
ter how competent the junior officers, for he alone 
was responsible for the speed of the passage and the 
safety of the ship. All night he paced the quarter- 
deck. When day came struggling through the murk 
the steward brought a big armchair and secured it 
under the weather rail. In that the captain sat down 
for a rest, now and then, but never for a moment 
did he fail to give heed to the wet sails and the strain- 
ing gear aloft. His meals were brought to him as 
he sat in the chair, with now and then a cup of coffee 
between times, but he was on his feet, pacing to and 
fro or walking forward for a look at the head sails 
during many more hours of the day than he was 
seated in the chair. The next night found him as 
vigilant as ever. For him there was no watch below. 
Day on day and night on night he turned his eyes 
from the reeling spars to the raging seas and back 
again to the spars. He was wet by the clouds of 
spray that came over the weather rail and by the 
solid blue water into which the lee rail sagged at 
every roll; he was chilled by the wind as well as the 
water; but he remained on deck, ready on the Instant 
for every emergency, while the storm lasted. No 
firmer hand than his ever drew the reins over Nep- 
tune's white-manned horses. 

For a summer storm, no matter how long it en- 
dured, such an experience rarely if ever provoked 
a comment on his arrival in port, unless, indeed, he 

1 66 Captain Nathaniel Brown Palmer 

happened to be racing with a steamship, when he 
would ask by how many hours he had beaten her. 
And even when he had faced the snow-laden and 
sleet-laden blasts of winter in the "Roaring Forties" 
for a fortnight at a stretch, with no more sleep than 
could be had in an occasional nap in his armchair, 
he spoke of the experience, if at all, only as a matter 
for quiet satisfaction rather than complaint. 

Nevertheless a time came, when his body could no 
longer endure the strain even though it were sus- 
tained by an iron will, and his health failed so far 
that he had to leave the service. Of course he did 
not sever his connection abruptly. He went to New 
Orleans in 1839 for a rest. He had a brother who 
had been established in business there for years, and 
the manner of life in the Crescent City delighted 
him and brought renewed strength. So he came 
back to command the Siddons, and in a passage be- 
ginning at Liverpool in October, 1840, he drove his 
packet across the Atlantic and to her pier in New 
York in fifteen days. This was the shortest west- 
ward passage between Liverpool and New York of 
which there is any record. The next in length of 
time was made by the Yorkshire, Captain Bailey, in 
1846. She crossed in sixteen days. The passage of 
the Siddons has been overlooked by modern writers 
because the captain avoided instead of seeking news- 
paper notoriety. In a letter to his family in Ston- 
ington, dated October 25, he gives the length of the 
passage, but adds no details. The important news, 
in his view, which he had to convey was the effect of 

Record Passage from Liverpool to New York 167 

the strain he had suffered upon his health. He had 
finally broken down and was to sail immediately for 
Havana in the hope that the change of climate would 
prove beneficial — as it did. But the unequaled west- 
ward passage of the Siddons was his last as a master 
in the packet service. 

Among the few remaining notes on the life of the 
captain in the interval after he left the packets and 
before he began his career with the clippers is one 
that says he made a voyage to Rio Janeiro for a 
cargo of coffee, in the ship Hibernia. He was back 
in New York on May 20, 1841. On July 4 he went 
fishing off Block Island and caught eighty mackerel. 
On January 12, 1842, he sailed from Norfolk, Va., 
in the U. S. Sloop of War Marion, Captain Goulds- 
borough, bound for Rio Janeiro, where he was to 
take command of a vessel loaded with coffee. His 
next command was the ship Paul Jones, belonging 
to Robt. B. Forbes, of Boston, and Russell & Co., 
of Hong Kong. She was a new ship, bound to Can- 
ton for a load of China goods. She sailed from 
Boston on January 15, 1843, and made the passage 
to Hong Kong in 1 1 1 days, a short time for that 
day. The voyage as a whole was uneventful in all 
respects but one. While on the way home he car- 
ried a passenger with whom he frequently discussed 
the conditions then prevailing in the China trade, 
with the result that he determined, after arriving in 
New York, to enter the China service as part owner 
and master of a ship, and this ship became the first 
of the great fleet of American clippers. 



THE Story of the American clippers is mani- 
festly of growing rather than of waning 
interest to American readers, for it has ap- 
peared in our magazines bristling with the records 
of day-runs and of passages from port to port at 
intervals ever since the last of the mighty fleet was 
deprived of her wings and set at work as an along- 
shore tow-barge. The newspaper editor who dis- 
cusses any feature of our modern oversea commerce 
usually adorns and emphasizes his argument by a 
reference to the days "when our ships dominated 
the Seven Seas" ; and in doing so he assumes that 
every reader already knows the facts well enough 
to appreciate the force of what he says. Perhaps it 
is safe to say that certain features of the story of 
the clippers are as well known to ordinary readers 
as any chapter in American history. 

Nevertheless the records at Stonington, though 
few in number, add some facts of interest to those 
already printed in connection with the clipper era. 
In order to make the story clear it seems advisable 
to explain exactly what is meant herein when the 
term clipper ship is used and to define the period 


The First Yankee Clipper 169 

called the clipper ship era. The word clipper was 
first applied to the swift privateers built at Balti- 
more during the War of 18 12. It was derived, of 
course, from the verb clip which means to cut or 
shorten. The Baltimore clippers certainly did 
shorten the time theretofore required to sail a sea 

As used here the word clipper is applied to a 
class of carriers which were built at first especially 
for the China trade. After the discovery of gold 
in California the fleet was rapidly enlarged for use 
in the trade to San Francisco. All of these ships 
were designed for high speed instead of great cargo 
capacity. They were not yachts, built solely to break 
speed records; they were cargo carriers built for 
profits. Speed was considered more desirable than 
cargo capacity solely because of the well-founded be- 
lief that speed would bring more profits than a slow 
ship of great capacity; and never was the theory 
that profit and progress go hand in hand illustrated 
more clearly than in the evolution of these ships. 

Thus, the first ship built for speed instead of 
capacity was the Ann McKim, of 493 tons, owned by 
Isaac McKim, of Baltimore, and launched in 1832. 
She had live oak frames, mahogany deck finishings, 
with no end of brass work, and was copper fastened. 
The cost was excessive and because she had a sharp 
model her cargo capacity was relatively small. She 
therefore made less profits than the other ships in 
the trade and was regarded by other ship merchants 

1 70 Captain Nathaniel Brown Palmer 

as an example to be avoided rather than imitated. 
She therefore had no Influence In bringing on what 
Is called the clipper era. 

The plans for building the China clippers (two 
in number) which initiated the clipper era were 
drawn in 1843. One of the ships was launched in 
May, 1844; the other In January, 1845. -Both were 
larger than any ship previously in the China trade, 
and both were of refined model. In spite of sharp 
models, however, both proved to be immensely 
profitable. Their owners therefore at once built 
others to similar models. These proved to be still 
more profitable and the profits being In considerable 
measure due to speed, other merchants were led to 
consider the advisability of building similar ships. 
The urgent demand for tonnage which followed the 
discovery of gold In California and the still more 
urgent demand that the ships in this trade should 
be swift — the fact that speed added greatly to the 
profits of tonnage In this trade — was the final Im- 
pulse which brought the clipper ship evolution to its 
zenith of splendor in size and speed. Indeed, 
builders and merchants lost all sense of proportion 
and built beyond the needs of the period so that 
profits fell off; whereupon there was a return to 
what may be called the capacity model. But mar- 
velous speed records were made, and European 
merchants and builders were compelled to acknowl- 
edge the supremacy of American ships In the long- 

The First Yankee Clipper 171 

haul trades as they had previously acknowledged 
that supremacy on the North Atlantic. 

In the meantime, certain schooners and brigs 
which had been engaged in the coasting trade of 
China had been called clippers because they had been 
modeled for speed rather than capacity. Speed was 
absolutely necessary to profits in that trade, for the 
vessels had -to beat against powerful currents and 
dodge pirates. These vessels are of interest here 
not because they were a part of the great fleet of 
American clippers, properly so called, but because 
the profits which they made led Captain Palmer to 
design and build the first of the China clippers that 
was put in commission. 

Let it be said once more than the clippers com- 
posed a distinct fleet. The packets were passenger 
carriers, sailing on schedules. The clippers were 
cargo carriers only (a few passengers were carried 
on some of them) and they sailed when loaded. 
The packets in their record-breaking passages prob- 
ably attained speeds up to fifteen knots an hour, 
though the records do not give the exact facts. Sev- 
eral of the clippers exceeded eighteen knots an hour 
and the log book of the Lightning, quoted by Capt. 
Clark in his "Clipper Ship Era," says she dragged 
out twenty-one knots in one heave of the log. 

If these statements need be argued no further 
now, we will consider how it happened that a de- 
mand arose for improved ships in the China trade, 

172 Captain Nathaniel Brown Palmer 

where the first clippers appeared. The American 
trade with China was opened when the ship Empress 
of China, Captain John Green, sailed from New 
York (February 22, 1784) for Canton with a cargo, 
the principal item of which was ginseng roots — 
14,666 pounds, worth in Canton a dollar a pound on 
the average. The passage out was covered in 174 
days. An old account of her arrival says "it is 
pleasing to notice the courtesy with which the Amer- 
icans were welcomed" at Whampoa, Canton's sea- 
port. There were thirty-four ships (seventeen 
British) at anchor there and every one of them 
fired a salute when the Yankee, with her flag flying, 
came to join them. 

After exchanging her ginseng for tea and other 
goods the Empress sailed home in 135 days. The 
account quoted says "the profits of the voyage were 
$30,000, upwards of 25% on the capital employed." 
The merchants of that day thought 25% a small re- 
turn on a voyage requiring a year's time, but they 
persisted in the trade because they observed that 
with added experience and a larger capital they could 
make more. By 1792 they considered the trade 
well established because the American import of 
tea, during that year, amounted to 2,614,008 
pounds, a part of which was received in exchange 
for seal skins taken in the Cape Horn region. 

Thereafter, by irregular advances, the amount of 
tea imported increased to 20,000,000 pounds, worth 
$5,427,010, in 1841. In that year 35 American 

The First Yankee Clipper 173 

ships of the average size of 390 tons were employed 
in our trade to China. 

The distance from New York to Canton, as the 
ships sailed, was around 14,000 miles and the time 
required for a voyage (out and back) was about 
one year. It was obvious that if the length of time 
consumed could be shortened the expense would be 
decreased. The fact that tea deteriorated during 
a long passage was another inducement to shorten 
the time required. The new crop tea, called Young 
Hyson, consisting of the partially developed leaves, 
was especially subject to injury. A simple calcula- 
tion showed every tea merchant that if a cargo of 
this new crop could be landed in New York say a 
month ahead of the coming of the fleet, the owners 
would make a profit of from 100% to 150% on 
all the capital used in the venture. And yet down 
to the year 1843 but one tea merchant of the United 
States had built a ship that was especially designed 
to make such swift passages as that. 

In view of the competition between American 
tea merchants, and of what had been done in the 
way of increasing speed among the Liverpool 
packets, the continued use of relatively slow little 
400-ton droghers in the tea trade seems at first 
thought discreditable to the merchants. But an ex- 
planation of this conservatism is found in the extent 
of the trade. Large ships were not needed. The 
20,000,000 pounds imported in 1841, reduced to 
deadweight tons, was but little more than the weight 

174 Captain Nathaniel Brown Palmer 

carried by ten such ships as the packet Roscius; and 
yet this total of 10,000 tons was, of course, dis- 
tributed among all the 35 ships in the trade. To 
build a ship large enough to give a material increase 
of speed in the long passage was not attempted be- 
cause even the larger ships in use came home with 
less cargo than they might have carried. 

Beginning in 1839, however, events occurred in 
China which gave an entirely new aspect to the 
trade. In that year the Chinese Government began 
trying to exclude opium from the realm and thus 
brought on what was called the Opium War with 
England. During 1842 the Chinese were beaten 
and they made peace (August 29) by ceding Hong 
Kong in perpetuity to the British and by paying an 
indemnity of $21,000,000. They also opened to 
foreign trade four ports in addition to Canton. 

In the American view the most important result 
of the war was the opening of the additional ports 
to foreign trade. It was like "the discovery of a 
new continent, ready peopled with a rich, industri- 
ous" race; it was "one of the greatest commercial 
revolutions that ever took place." So said Hunt's 
Merchants^ Magazine. "Moreover," said Hunt, 
"the march of events will ultimately give the United 
States the mastery" in the trade. 

It was on January 4, 1843, that Captain Palmer 
sailed for Canton in command of the Paul Jones. 
Some of the events of the Opium War had been 

The First Yankee Clipper 175 

described, of course, in the American newspapers, 
and the American people — more especially those en- 
gaged in the China trade — were greatly interested 
in the results expected to follow. It was therefore 
natural that Captain Palmer should make a careful 
study of the commercial conditions prevailing in 
Asia while he was at Canton. 

He perceived first of all that American trade 
with China would be increased by the opening of 
the new ports quite as rapidly as that of the British, 
if not more so; for while the Chinese did not refuse 
to trade with the British they favored the Ameri- 
cans whenever possible. 

The opium trade received the captain's especial 
attention, partly because it had led to the war, but 
chiefly, perhaps, because a swift little American 
brig named the Antelope, belonging to the owners 
of the Paul Jones, was engaged In it. The opium 
was a product of India and the principal port of 
shipment was Bombay. The Antelope was plying 
between Bombay and Canton, making large profits. 
Captain Palmer perceived that the opening of four 
more China ports would give opportunity for at 
least one more swift Yankee ship in the opium trade. 
For the trade would inevitably increase and it was 
the speed of the Antelope that made the merchants 
favor her. Having designed four splendid packets 
in the Dramatic Line, Captain Palmer was confident 
that he could build a ship for the trade between 

176 Captain Nathaniel Brown Palmer 

Bombay and, say, Shanghai, the principal of the new 
ports, that could hold a lead over all others on the 
coast of Asia. 

Now, It happened that when Captain Palmer had 
loaded the Paul Jones for New York, a man named 
William H. Low, with his wife, engaged passage. 
Mr. Low was a brother of Ablel Abbott Low, of the 
New York tea firm of A. A. Low & Brother (there 
being only two of the brothers then In the business). 
He was one of the firm of Russell & Co., Hong 
Kong, and on the way home he and Captain Palmer 
discussed the foreign trade of China from every 
point of view. The kind of a ship needed — the size, 
model, rig and so on — was a matter of special Inter- 
est to them. As a result of these discussions the two 
eventually agreed that larger ships than those al- 
ready engaged should prove more profitable, and 
they then concluded that, as an experiment In the 
growing trade, a vessel designed for the opium 
trade between Bombay and some port In China 
would have more chances for profit than any other. 

In a letter which Captain Palmer wrote to A. A. 
Low on August 8, 1875, he referred to this matter 
as follows: 

*'At the period of my first visit to China the opium 
trade was in full tide of prosperity. The Antelope 
and other clippers were running between Bombay 
and other Indian ports, making large freights and 
doing a fine business; and It did not appear that any 
material change would take place for years to come. 

The First Yankee Clipper 177 

Your brother and myself came to the conclusion 
there would be a good opening for a fast clipper 
in the opium business between China and Bombay, 
and we decided to carry out the enterprise on our 
arrival home. I was to take one-quarter interest 
and he was to take care of the other three-quarters. 
He stated that he had no doubt but you would be 
interested in the enterprise on arrival home in 
October, 1843. 

"I had not the pleasure of knowing you at this 
time. I was taken by your brother William to your 
place of business in Fletcher Street, and formally 
introduced. When the project was made known you 
readily approved of it, and authorized me to con- 
tract for a suitable vessel. 

"I went immediately to Messrs. Brown & Bell, 
the most eminent shipbuilders in the city and con- 
tracted with them to build a brig 120 feet long, 13 
feet deep and 28 feet beam, making a vessel of 450 
tons, costing for hull and spars $16,500. Before 
the model was finished and the vessel begun it 
occurred to me that a vessel of the shape and dimen- 
sions as above would be unsuitable for any other 
purpose than the opium trade. Consequently I sug- 
gested to enlarge the dimensions to a vessel 132 feet 
long, 17 feet depth of hold and 32 feet beam, which 
was approved of, and [I] was authorized to ascer- 
tain what the additional cost would be. I immedi- 
ately called on Mr. Brown and asked what the 
additional cost would be. He said : 

178 Captain Nathaniel Brown Palmer 

" 'That is just such a vessel as I want to build, 
and I will do it for $3,000 additional.' " 

The increase of cost was approved by Mr. Low 
and the ship was then "built and fitted out under 
my supervision, and all contracts were made by me 
from keel to truck," to quote still more from the 

Captain Charles P. Low (a brother of A. A. 
Low), who later commanded three different clippers 
designed by Captain Palmer, writes in his auto- 
biography, "Some Recollections," as follows re- 
garding this ship : 

"Soon after I left home for London my brother 
William came home from China with Captain Nat 
Palmer, in the ship Paul Jones. During the voyage 
Captain Palmer had made a model of a clipper ship 
and my brother took him to my brother Abbot and 
persuaded him to have a ship built after the model. 
It was to be built like a man-of-war, with solid bul- 
warks and pierced for sixteen guns — eight on a side. 
She was to be very fast. This vessel, when I re- 
turned from London, was being built at Brown & 
Bell's yards." 

The exact day in October, 1843, when Captain 
Palmer called on the Lows in connection with this 
ship is not recorded, but the contract for the ship 
was signed about November i. The captain says 
distinctly that she was the "first clipper ship built 

The First Yankee Clipper 179 

for commercial purposes'* and that she sailed for 
China, "admired by all," in June, 1844. 

That the Houqua, as this ship was called, was one 
of the clipper fleet, as claimed by Captain Palmer in 
the above letter, is distinctly asserted by several 
periodicals published while she was in commission. 
For example, in a description of the clipper ship 
Staghoundf which was published in the Monthly 
Nautical Magazine, dated August, 1855, by John 
Willis Griffiths, the editor, are the following state- 
ments : 

"The construction of this ship may be said to 
mark the introduction of the late clipper era to 
Boston. The building of fast vessels for foreign 
trade had for several years been adopted in New 
York, having been first undertaken by William H. 
Aspinwall for whom Smith & Dimon constructed 
the clipper ship Rainbow, in 1843, which was fol- 
lowed by the Houqua and Samuel Russell, by 
Brown & Bell ; and the famous Sea Witch, also built 
by Smith & Dimon. . . . Such was the condition of 
enterprise in New York for several years before 
Boston awoke to distinguish herself in clipper build- 
ing, and give to the world many of the fastest fleets 
and largest ships in commercial service." 

When Griffiths spoke of "building of fast vessels 
for foreign trade" he meant to say for the long- 
haul trade, beginning with that to China, in order 
to distinguish these ships from those employed in 

i8o Captain Nathaniel Brown Palmer 

the packet trade of the North Atlantic. He then 
continued : 

"The bold mind of Donald McKay grew restless 
under the idea that a sister city was monopolizing 
the construction of fast vessels, and for many years 
he urged Boston merchants to enter the lists with 
Messrs. Aspinwall, Captain N. B. Palmer and 
others, and dispute for the palm of speed." 

Editor Griffiths was the designer of the two ships. 
Rainbow and Sea Witch, built by Smith & Dimon, 
of which he made mention, and his statement that 
the Houqua was a clipper is therefore conclusive 
evidence that she was so. 

Another quotation which seems worth giving here 
is found in an essay, entitled "Ships, Models, Ship- 
building, &c.," which was printed in Hunt's Mer- 
chants* Magazine, in February, 1848. The un- 
named writer considers at length certain innovations 
in models which had appeared in recent years and 
the arguments for and against them. These innova- 
tions had been introduced by Editor Griffiths, who 
supported them with mathematical calculations 
which the ordinary shipbuilders could not make. 
The writer of the essay was unconvinced by the 
scientific calculations, and he was still doubtful after 
considering the speed records of the two Griffiths' 
clippers, Rainbow and Sea Witch. In fact, his chief 
object in writing the essay was to prove that "ex- 
perience, judgment and talent are requisite," and in 

The First Yankee Clipper i8i 

fact were more important, when a fast ship was to be 
designed, than "science and mathematics." 

In the course of his argument he wrote as follows : 

"The Houqua, Coquette, Crusader , Valparaiso , 
Paul Jones, and other ships were not built by mere 
science and mathematics; and yet few vessels built 
at navy yards equal them." 

The fact that the Houqua came to the mind of 
this writer first of all shows, of course, that she 
was a noted ship in 1848, and that was at a time 
when new records for speed were the chief topic 
of conversation in New York City. 

No writer has ever disputed the claim that the 
Houqua was a noted clipper, but it has been said by 
modern writers that the Rainbow was the first of 
the famous fleet, while Captain Palmer asserted that 
his Houqua was first. The question at Issue is 
therefore primarily one of dates only. Was the 
Houqua the first ship to enter the China trade or 
was the Rainbow? 

In the letter previously quoted. Captain Palmer 
says that the contract for the Houqua was signed 
the first of November, 1843, ^^^ that she sailed 
for Canton in June, 1844. To support these state- 
ments of fact there is a list of the ships built by 
Brown & Bell, between 1821 and 1847, inclusive, 
which was printed in the Merchants^ Magazine in 
December, 1848 (p. 643). This table says that 
the Houqua, of 706 tons, was launched in 1844, and 

1 82 Captain Nathaniel Brown Palmer 

was the first of two that were built there during that 
year. Searches have been made in files of the New 
York Herald and other New York periodicals and 
in the records of Lloyds' "Register of Shipping" for 
the exact date when the Houqua was launched, but 
without avail. Nor was the exact date of the launch- 
ing of the Rainbow found. But it is not doubted 
that the Houqua went afloat some time in May, 
1844. As to the Rainbow it appears from various 
accounts that her keel was placed on the blocks 
early in 1843 — certainly several months before the 
keel of the Houqua was stretched. But because of 
disputes between William H. Aspinwall, the owner, 
and John Willis Griffiths, the designer, the work of 
building her was delayed so long that she was not 
launched until January, 1845. The most interesting 
of all the magazine histories of this ship which have 
been printed was written by William Brown Meloney 
for the Saturday Evening Post, of Philadelphia. It 
appeared on February 26, 19 16, and the following 
is quoted by permission: 

"So it was not until a cold and cheerless morn- 
ing in January, 1845, that the Rainbow, whose keel 
had been laid nearly two years before, was ready 
to leave the ways. . . . The Rainbow sailed in 
February for China." 

Meloney's statement is confirmed by Captain 
Clark's "Clipper Ship Era." It is therefore certain 
that the Rainbow was launched seven months after 
the Houqua had sailed for Canton. 



WHILE the records show that the Rainbow 
sailed for China long after the sailing 
of the Houqua, it must be obvious to the 
reader that In any consideration of the relative in- 
fluence of the two ships upon the evolution of the 
clippers the character of each as a cargo carrier is 
of more importance than the date on which each 
was commissioned. 

Perhaps it should be said, first of all, however, 
that while Griffiths and Captain Palmer differed in 
their opinions of models, their personal relations 
were friendly. The references to Captain Palmer's 
work which Griffiths wrote in the Nautical Maga- 
zine are conclusive evidence that their rivalry, such 
as it was, was entirely devoid of personal ill will. 
There was, indeed, no occasion for any such feeling, 
for each was amply supported by the ship owners 
of the coast, and the results obtained by each were 
unmistakably set forth in the records of the ships 
and the bank accounts of the owners. 

Because there were two distinct lines of evolution 
in the development of the clippers — rather say two 
lines of models — the variety which Griffiths origi- 


184 Captain Nathaniel Brown Palmer 

nated shall have first consideration here. The fact 
is that the circumstances under which this naval 
architect became prominent, as well as the records 
of the ships he designed, indicate attention herein 
to his work as a designer ahead of that of Captain 

In 1841-J'ohn Willis Griffiths was a draftsman in 
the employ of Smith & Dimon, then well known ship 
builders. He was a man of education — able, for ex- 
ample, to calculate the displacement of a ship, the 
center of gravity of her hull and the center of effort 
of her sails, all from her plans. 

His work as a draftsman naturally made him 
entirely familiar with models of the swift packets 
of the day, but while these vessels were acknowl- 
edged to be superior in all respects to the competing 
ships, Griffiths became convinced that in certain 
features of the hulls they might be greatly im- 
proved. At a meeting of the American Institute in 
1 84 1, he delivered a lecture, illustrated with draw- 
ings, by which he sought to prove that existing 
models were defective. His effort attracted little 
attention but a year later he came again, this time 
with a model, and repeated his criticisms. For this 
lecture he was jeered. 

Griffiths, however, had the admirable quality of 
persistence. He sought and secured opportunities 
for explaining his views in public, until he obtained 
as a respectful listener one of the most enterprising 
merchants in New York, Mr. William H. Aspin- 

The Griffiths Clippers 185 

wall, the one who, later, built the Panama Railroad. 
Asplnwall believed that American trade with China 
would be greatly Increased by the results of the 
Opium War, and soon after hearing, early in 1843, 
that four ports had been opened in China, he de- 
termined to build for the trade a ship of about 750 
tons — much larger than the average of those pre- 
viously engaged in it. He knew, of course, that a 
swift ship was most desirable, and, having been 
favorably impressed with the views of young 
Griffiths, he was persuaded to sign a contract with 
Smith & Dimon for a Griffiths model. The name 
Rainbow was given to the ship to express the hope 
that her size as well as her speed would suit the 
trade; for a ship of her tons was as yet experimental. 
Consider, now, the peculiarities of model for 
which Griffiths contended. As editor of the Nau- 
tical Magazine, later, he wrote a number of ar- 
ticles in which he set forth his views of models. 
Thus, in describing the Lightning, built by Donald 
McKay, of Boston (McKay had been converted to 
the Griffiths views), the following words were used: 

"No timid hand or hesitating brain gave form 
and dimensions to the Lightning. Very great sta- 
bility; acute extremities; full, short midship body; 
comparatively small deadrise, and the longest end 
forward, are points in the excellence of this ship." 

To secure "acute extremities" the underwater 
lines at each end were made concave instead of 

1 86 Captain Nathaniel Brown Palmer 

convex — she had hollow water lines, to use the 
vernacular. The bow was comparable to an old- 
fashioned, hollow-ground razor. One may imagine 
that Griffiths conceived this shape for bow and stern 
while shaving. 

Donald McKay, as noted above, adopted the 
Griffiths view. Another notable designer who did 
so was George Steers, who designed the famous 
yacht America. The Rainbow and the Sea Witch 
were the only ships of Griffiths design which became 
famous, but Donald McKay turned out a great 
fleet which made most remarkable passages. 

But Griffiths certainly had much trouble with the 
first of his ships. As already intimated the launch- 
ing was delayed nearly two years. The designers 
of the ordinary models continued jeering the new 
model after Aspinwall signed the contract, and the 
newspapers printed the criticisms. Aspinwall was 
greatly affected by the adverse comment and made 
many efforts to induce Griffiths to yield to the clamor, 
but without avail. He even sent to England for 
a sail plan for use on the new ship — that too, al- 
though the American packets had a lead on the 
Atlantic which England had never disputed. Grif- 
fiths was obliged to accept this plan without open 
protest, but he nevertheless used his own when the 
spars were set and the sails were made; and so at 
last the Rainbow as launched was his in model from 
truck down to keel. 

Meloney notes in the Saturday Evening Post that 

The Griffiths Clippers 187 

the Rainbow cost Aspinwall $45,000, which the 
reader may compare with the $19,500 which the 
Lows and Captain Palmer paid for the Houqua; 
for the percentage of profit made on any venture 
is figured, of course, from the original investment. 

But when at last the Rainbow sailed from Sandy 
Hook on her way to Canton, the troubles of John 
Willis GrifHths as a designer were at end; for she 
proved to be a swift and profitable ship. The record 
of her passages to and from Canton in her maiden 
voyage have been lost but in her second voyage 
she beat her way against the northeast monsoon 
and arrived out in 92 days while her homeward 
passage was made in 88 days. She was thus only 
180 days at sea in this voyage. Better yet she made, 
it is said, a profit of 100% on her cost. 

In the magazine stories of the clipper era It is 
commonly asserted that the short voyages of the 
Rainbow led to the building of the next Griffiths 
clipper, the Sea Witch, As a matter of fact the 
Rainbow^s passages were, as said, wonderful, but 
they did not break the speed record. They did not 
even equal the record of the Houqua. A ship named 
the Natchez, to be described in another chapter, had 
set a pace which but one ship ever equaled on the 
Canton-New York route, and it was the work of the 
master of the Natchez, Captain Robert H. Water- 
man (Captain "Bob"), that led Rowland & Aspin- 
wall to build another sharp-hulled ship for the China 
trade. Waterman went to the yard of Smith & 

1 88 Captain Nathaniel Brown Palmer 

Dimon to superintend the construction of this 
ship, but Griffiths drew her plans. She was launched 
under the name of Sea Witch. She was 170 feet 
long, 33 feet, 11 Inches wide and 19 feet deep. 
She measured 890 tons. She sailed for China on 
December 23, 1846, and poked the golden dragon 
on her cutwater Into the harbor of Hong Kong 
104 days later. She then came home from Canton 
in 81 days, which was not the record run, though 
really a wonder. 

In her second voyage the Sea Witch made Hong 
Kong In 105 days and then on her return broke all 
records and made a new one which stands to this 
day; for she arrived in New York at the end of 
77 days from Canton. A picture of this ship under 
all sail including royal studding-sails, which was 
used to illustrate Captain Arthur Clark's "Glimpse 
of the Clipper-Ship Days," in Harper's Magazine^ 
dated July, 1908 (copyrighted), was labeled "The 
Swiftest Clipper of Her Day." 

Griffiths always declared that the Sea Witch had 
more Influence upon the models of the clippers built 
thereafter than any other ship of the period. Just 
how far this claim was justified cannot now be de- 
termined, but it is certain that Griffiths' chief Ideas 
were adopted by Donald McKay, and that McKay 
built more clippers which became famous for speed 
than any other shipbuilder of the era. 

It is therefore proper to give here, in connection 
with Griffiths' work, the records made by some of 

The Griffiths Clippers 189 

the McKay ships which were built to the Griffiths 

The Lightningy mentioned above as having 
dragged twenty-one knots of logline from the reel 
during one turn of the glass, made the record run 
for twenty-four consecutive hours — 436 miles. Per- 
haps it should be said here that every use of the 
word mile in this book means a sea mile, 6,080.27 
feet long, and not a land mile which is 5,280 feet 
long. McKay's Sovereign of the Seas, commanded 
by Captain Laughlan McKay, a brother of Donald, 
in a run of 82 days from Honolulu to New York, 
covered (in March, 1853), 3,562 miles in eleven 
consecutive days. She crossed from New York to 
Liverpool in 13 days and 19 hours. Later, in a 
passage from San Francisco to New York, she cov- 
ered 6,245 miles in 22 days. 

The Flying Cloud, built by McKay for Enoch 
Train, of Boston (she was commanded by Captain 
Josiah P. Cressy), made the record passage from 
New York to San Francisco in 84 days. The record 
from San Francisco to New York, 76 days, was 
made by three different ships — the Comet, the 
Northern Light and the Trade Wind. The record 
voyage around the world, 132 days between ports, 
was made by the James Baines, a McKay ship, be- 
ginning December 9, 1854 (Meloney). 

In connection with these records consider two ex- 
tracts from log books of clippers which are printed 
in Clark's "Clipper Ship Era." On February i, 

190 Captain Nathaniel Brown Palmer 

1850, the Great Britain, Captain Philip Dumaresq, 
"passed a ship under double reefs with our royals 
and studding sails set." On June 16, 1854, the 
James Baines, while sailing 17 knots an hour under 
skysalls, passed a ship named the Lihertas under 
double reefed topsails. Can any one now imagine 
the feelings of the captain of the Lihertas as he 
saw that glorious Yankee clipper sweep past the 
hulk he commanded? 

With the records of the two Griffiths ships, Rain- 
how and Sea Witch, before them, together with 
those of the McKay ships Lightning, Sovereign of 
the Seas and Flying Cloud, it was entirely natural 
that writers should have believed that the Griffiths 
model was "the one which the sea liked best." 
Nevertheless, if all the facts in the clipper records 
be considered in connection with modern, or say 
later, usage in the design of swift models of the 
sail, it can be demonstrated beyond dispute that 
the chief feature of those swift clippers — the hollow 
water line — was a positive detriment. The ships 
made short passages because of certain other fea- 
tures of model and construction, and because of the 
way they were handled. But before going Into a 
discussion of these technical points of ship construc- 
tion the clippers designed by Captain Palmer, and 
their records, must have consideration. 



THE name Houqua, which was given to the 
first ship of the great American clipper 
fleet, was that of a native merchant of 
Canton. The foreign trade of Canton was done 
by a dozen natives who owned big warehouses 
called hongs, and who were known as hong 
merchants. The emperor held them responsible 
for all import duties and they were in several 
ways men of much importance. The twelve were 
under the command of one known as the senior 
hong merchant, and the one who held this post in 
1843 was named Houqua, a man who was famous 
for ''sound judgment; true prudence; wary circum- 
spection and a wise economy," to quote an appre- 
ciation printed in Hunt's Merchants^ Magazine, 
Moreover "his predilections were American." 

While the ship was on the ways, a beautiful full- 
rigged model of the Houqua was made to carry as 
a present to the merchant, but he had died in Sep- 
tember, 1843, before her keel had been laid on the 
blocks. The model was delivered to his family. 

In her first voyage. Captain Palmer commanded 
the Houqua, with Thomas Hunt as first mate, Wil- 


192 Captain Nathaniel Brown Palmer 

Ham Gardner, second mate, and Charles P. Low, 
third mate. Low, in his autiobiography, mentioned 
above, naturally had much to say about the ship 
and her officers. He had already made a voyage 
to China in a ship called the Horatio, the fastest 
ship in the China trade (1842), "but she could not 
make over ten knots an hour." 

While the exact date of the launching of the 
Houqua is not given, he notes that "Captain N. B. 
Palmer had no superstition as to Friday being a 
bad day to sail, though at that time sailors objected 
to going to sea on Friday and many merchants were 
superstitious enough to wait for Saturday and even 
Sunday before sending their ships to sea. The 
Houqua was launched on Friday, was towed down 
town on Friday, went to sea on Friday and arrived 
in Hong Kong on Friday, but she was a very lucky 
ship for years, at any rate." 

The ship was loaded at Peck Slip. "Times had 
changed in the short interval since my coming home 
in the Horatio/' (A change due to the Opium War.) 
"Then the ships went out with almost no cargo but 
lead and coal, and now our ship was loaded with 
pig lead, lumber, cotton sheetings and naval stores — 
pitch, tar and turpentine. She was full, so there 
was no 'tweendecks for the sailmaker, carpenter 
and boys. The boys had to go to the forecastle 
with the men and a house over the main hatch was 
fitted for the third mate, carpenter and sailmaker. 

The Captain and His Fleet 193 

It was a good sized room and very comfortable. 
. . . We had quite a number of passengers. 

*'We had a good sendoff by our family and a 
large number of friends who went down the bay 
with us. . . . Captain Palmer was a rough old sailor. 
He was determined to see me get along, and helped 
me more than any other man to know my duty 
as an officer and to fit me for a master. . . . Be- 
sides teaching me seamanship, Mr. Hunt, with the 
captain's knowledge, had me take my quadrant and 
take the sun at noon and work up the latitude by 
observation and find the latitude and longitude by 
dead reckoning. The captain is the only one who 
finds the longitude by chronometer. . . . Captain 
Palmer and Mr. Hunt got along splendidly and 
of course everything went off happily. . . . Mr. 
Hunt was a jolly fellow and apt to make too free" 
with some kinds of captains, but "Captain Nat Pal- 
mer rather enjoyed his wit and stories." 

"The ship made a fine passage of 72 days to 
Anjer, where we laid in a stock of chickens, turtles, 
yams, bananas, oranges, and mangusteens. Captain 
Palmer was a believer in good feed, not alone for 
the cabin; he believed in giving the sailors the very 
best of salt beef and pork, and plenty of it; and 
everything else they had to eat was of the very 
best. . . . Here we filled our casks with fresh water 
brought by the natives. After doing this we pro- 
ceeded up the China Sea and sailed into Hong 

194 Captain Nathaniel Brown Palmer 

Kong, 84 days from New York, a splendid 

The Houqua was soon ordered to Whampoa (12 
miles below Canton), where all ships were loaded 
from Chinese boats that came down from the city. 
It was custom of the ship captains to go up to the 
city to live while waiting for cargo, but Low says 
that "Captain Palmer was very fond of his ship 
and would rather live on board at Whampoa and 
have company than stay in Canton. . . . He had 
a room on shore assigned to him and was welcome 
to stay as long as he liked; and when he did go 
up he had a fast sampan, or Chinese boat, to take 
him up and bring him back. 

"All the ships had to lie a long time in port, 
and after the rigging was overhauled and tarred 
down, and all was painted aloft, the hull was painted 
inside and out, the deck was holystoned as white 
as snow, and then everything was kept in splendid 

Unhappily for the peace of the second mate of 
the Houqua, however, the sailors had a pet monkey 
that was, on a certain Saturday afternoon, fastened 
on the bowsplit within reach of a 50-pound keg 
of black paint. "Like a monkey, always full of 
mischief, he upset the paint, which ran down the 
scuppers as far as the mainmast and over the clean 
white deck. The second mate caught the monkey 
and swabbed the paint up with him till he would 
hold no more, and then threw him overboard. But 

The Captain and His Fleet 195 

this made matters worse, for the monkey caught 
the side ladder and came up; and before any one 
could stop him ran the whole length of the bulwarks 
leaving black paint all over the fresh straw-colored 
paint, and making an awful mess." 

As the ship had to be Immaculate for Sunday all 
hands turned to and cleaned up the mess the monkey 
had made, and when this had been done the beast 
was shaved, washed and forgiven. 

The Houqua's passage of 84 days to Hong Kong 
was then the shortest on record and It has not often 
been equaled since then. She left for New York 
on December 9, 1844, and arrived in 90 days. A 
year later she made the passage home in 91 days. 

In connection with these two passages home, ob- 
serve that the famous Flying Cloudy which made 
the record run of 89 days from New York to San 
Francisco, used 94 days in making her shortest 
passage from Canton to New York and 96 in mak- 
ing her next best run on the route. The Comet, 
that made the record of 76 days from San Fran- 
cisco east, was 99 days making her best run from 
Canton to New York. The Hoiiqua, though smaller 
than either of these splendid flyers, was therefore 
manifestly a peer. 

It may also be noted that the total number of 
days passed at sea by the Houqua during her first 
voyage was 174. The Rainbow in her second and 
most famous voyage was 180 days at sea. Captain 
John Land of the Rainbow boasted, after com- 

196 Captain Nathaniel Brown Palmer 

pleting her second voyage, that she was the fastest 
ship on earth, and his boast was accepted thereafter 
by about all writers until Captain Clark published 
the record of the Hoiiqua in "The Clipper Ship 
Era." The Rainbow never equaled the Houqua^s 

At the end of the first voyage Captain Nat left 
the Houqua to his brother Alexander, but he took 
command again for the third voyage, "taking his 
wife and a niece of his. Miss Fanning." Low was 
now the mate of the ship and his autobiography 
gives several Interesting little sketches of the mas- 
ter. For example: 

One day when "the ship was rolling fearfully . . . 
the captain put his head out of the cabin scuttle and 
asked me how the weather was. I told him It was 
more moderate just then, but thought It would blow 
again at 8 o'clock. He then said: 

" 'Mr. Low, shake the reefs out of the maintop- 
sail, set the main topgallantsail and main royal, and 
let her roll over, shipshape and Bristol fashion, with 
all her canvas on her.' At eight it began to blow 
again and the captain put his head out of the scuttle 
and called out : 

" 'Mr. Low, take In the main royal, the main top- 
gallantsail and close reef the maintopsall, and let 
her roll over and be damned to her.' 

"He was very passionate," Low says. "In calm 
weather he would come on deck with an old v/hlte 
beaver hat on, take It off and stamp on it, and damn 

The Captain and His Fleet 197 

the calm and everything else. But he never abused 
the men." 

Because so much had been said in novels of the sea 
about the cruelty of the officers of American ships 
in the clippper days, perhaps an actual use of force 
upon an American ship may be described. With 
Captain Charles Porter Low in command, the 
Houqua sailed from New York for China on April 
6, 1849, ^^d a large party of friends of the Lows 
and of Captain Palmer went down to Sandy Hook 
with her to celebrate her departure. As it hap- 
pened, sailors were scarce in New York, at that time, 
and the crimps had made up the crew of the Houqua 
from such men as could be scraped up. As the ship 
approached Sandy Hook the sailmaker went to his 
room and refused to come out and go to work when 
ordered to do so by the mate. Thereupon the mate 
took him by the throat and dragged him forth. 

This use of force overcame the man's obstinacy, 
but when the pleasure-seekers saw the mate use 
force, they were so badly shocked (although the 
man was not beaten) that Captain Nat Palmer felt 
obliged to bring the Houqua to anchor, take the 
mate back to New York and bring another in his 
place. The Houqua was actually detained several 
hours in order to replace a mate who had used force 
to compel an obstinate seaman to do duty. 

Low mentions once more the unusual drilling he 
received in order to fit him for the command of a 
ship. He not only worked out the longitude by 

198 Captain Nathaniel Brown Palmer 

the chronometer but he was allowed to put the ship 
about in all kinds of weather. In short he had 
full command of the deck. He was 22 years old 
at the time. 

Of the captain^s strength of body Low wrote: 
"If it was necessary he could stand any fatigue 
and exposure and I am quite sure that" his allow- 
ing Low to manage the ship "was to teach me con- 
fidence in myself and also to give me experience." 

Speaking of live passengers in the cabin — all 
young men — Low says : 

"They had plenty of liquor on board and almost 
every evening they would get on deck and sing songs 
and spin yarns until 10 o'clock, when they had to 
retire, for no lights were allowed after that. Cap- 
tain Palmer would always absent himself till they 
got through their fun, but he never objected." 

The most remarkable passage of the Houqua was 
that made in a run home from Shanghai in 1850. 
The Houqua was then six years old and she had 
been driven to the limit of endurance during all 
her life. She had theretofore been thrown on her 
beam ends in a cyclone and had been "strained 
and weakened," to use the words of Captain Clark 
in connection with the Sea Witch in one of her races. 
To those words Captain Clark added: 

"Moreover, a wooden ship, after five or six years, 
begins to lose her speed through absorbing water, 
and becomes sluggish in light airs." 

The Captain and His Fleet 199 

In spite of handicaps thus described, the Hoiiqua 
sailed home from Shanghai in 87 days, as a letter 
from Captain Palmer to his family said at the time. 
It was a record-breaking passage at the time, but 
the important fact in the run is that it shows she 
had been built for strength and endurance as well 
as speed. A further proof of her efficiency is found 
in the fact that she was a profitable ship in the 
long-haul trades until 1865, when she was lost in 
a typhoon in the China Sea. 

This matter of endurance is of importance here 
because the influence of a ship upon ships built sub- 
sequently depends upon the profits made more than 
upon any one fact in her history. For profit, the 
Houqua was one of the most notable of her day 
because, first, she was efficient, and next because 
she cost comparatively little in the beginning. When 
the Houqua was built, A. A. Low & Brother oc- 
cupied a small office in Fletcher Street. The profit 
made by the ship enabled them to move to com- 
modious quarters in Burling Slip. The great profits 
made by her and the other clippers built by the 
firm created the great fortune for which they were 
famous. It was because these ships were profitable 
that Mr. Seth Low, son of A. A. Low, was able 
to give Columbia University a million dollars while 
he was at the head of that famous school. 

Of course Captain Palmer shared in this pros- 
perity. He did, indeed, receive only $500 for de- 
signing and superintending the construction of each 

200 Captain Nathaniel Brown Palmer 

ship the firm brought out, for that was a day of 
low wages; but he owned a quarter of the Houqua 
and he held shares — usually an eighth — in each one 
he built. It was because of his success as a ship 
owner as well as a ship designer that he came to 
be ranked as one of the foremost ship merchants 
in New York. 

It was the profit made by the Houqiia, of course, 
that led the Lows to build the Samuel Russell, of 
940 tons. She was named for the head of the 
famous American firm of Russell & Co., of Hong 

Captain Clark, in "The Clipper Ship Era," says, 
"She was a beautiful vessel, heavily sparred, with 
plenty of light canvas for moderate weather, and 
every inch a clipper," 

The Russell is frequently mentioned in the stories 
of the American clippers. For example, it is said 
that in her first passage out she required 114 days, 
a long time for a clipper; and yet on one day when 
she had a breeze she covered 328 miles in twenty- 
four consecutive hours, a distance that was then 
astounding. Better yet, in a run home from Canton 
in 1 85 1 (when she was five years old) she covered 
6,722 miles in thirty consecutive days, an average 
of 226 miles a day. 

In one magazine. Captain Palmer is credited with 
this run but he was in New York at the time. He 
had recently sent the Contest afloat and was prepar- 
ing to build the David Brown. 

The Captain and His Fleet 201 

In the meantime the Russell had engaged in a 
famous race from New York around the Horn to 
San Francisco, in which seven clippers competed, 
the more famous of which were the Houqua and 
the Sea Witch. The Russell arrived out in 109 
days, and thus broke the previous record by twelve 
days, but the Sea Witch made the passage in 97 
days. The Houqua was 120 days on the way. 

The Russell was commanded by Captain Charles 
P. Low, for this voyage, and his account of it seems 
worth quoting in part because it shows not only 
the quality of the Palmer design but how ships were 
loaded when freights were high. Low received let- 
ters, while in Whampoa, telling him he was to take 
the Russell on his return to New York, and the 
Houqua, on arrival at New York, was towed directly 
to the pier where the Russell had been taking in 
cargo. Low found Captain Theodore Palmer, a 
young brother of Captain Nat, temporarily in com- 
mand of the Russell, and he was to take her to sea 
in case Low failed to arrive in time or refused to 
go in her. 

Palmer at once inquired if Low would go in her 
and Low replied that he would. The narrative 
continues ; 

"He [Theo Palmer] then went on board the 
ship and ordered the mate to have all the sails taken 
out of the fore peak and put in the cabin to make 
room for more freight. The mate said: 

202 Captain Nathaniel Brown Palmer 

'' 'Captain Low is going in the ship, is he not?' 
and Captain Palmer said: 

" 'Yes, he will take command.' The mate said: 

" 'I knew it, for if you were going this would not 
be done; for the ship is loaded now as deep as a 
sand barge.' 

"And she was; her scuppers were not more than a 
foot out of water. There was plenty of freight 
offering and the ship had a freight list of nearly 
$75,000, and she received a dollar and a half a foot, 
or $60 a ton, for all she had on board. . . . On the 
15th of January, 1850, I left the pilot at Sandy 
Hook, bound on a voyage around the world. We 
had a fresh wind from westward, and when we 
reached the Gulf Stream we found how deep in 
the water the ship was and how slowly she rose 
to the seas. The wind increased to a heavy gale 
and while running under close reefed topsails and 
a foresail, a sea boarded us over the starboard 
quarter." It swept the captain and the mate for 
sixty feet along the deck and landed the man at the 
wheel in the mizzen rigging. All the compasses in 
the ship were destroyed save a little one designed 
for small boats, "but we managed to get along and 
in twenty days crossed the line, ... a great run of 
luck." Off Rio, a ship bound for San Francisco 
was overhauled and two compasses were borrowed 
from her. 

Then came the Horn. Low was in waters with 
which he was unacquainted. "The barometer was 

The Captain and His Fleet 203 

unusually low and I lost some days from carrying 
small canvas In preparation for gales that never 
came. . . . We had very high seas and the ship's 
deck was flooded, day after day. Sometimes she 
would go under water and it seemed as though she 
would never come up." 

And yet she arrived in San Francisco in 109 days 
from New York, breaking the record, and the San 
Francisco newspapers Issued extras in celebration 
of the event. 

It is worth recalling that Low sailed the Russell 
into port without a pilot. The pilot hailed him off 
the Farallones and Low asked the price. The pilot 
replied $8 a foot for the total draft of the ship, 
but he added in a reply to a question that if the ship 
entered without a pilot only $4 a foot would be 
collected. The ship was drawing twenty feet. Low 
says he sailed in without a pilot in order to save 
$80, but the context shows that he was animated 
by pride of achievement only. At any rate he de- 
clared that a captain who was worth his salt should 
be able to enter a port like San Francisco aided 
by the chart only, even though he had never seen it 
before. It was, in fact, characteristic of our sailors 
of the sail to handle their ships in ways requiring 
extraordinary skill and then airily declare that they 
were merely anxious to save some trifling sum of 

In his summary of records of the California 
clippers Captain Clark divides the passage from 

204 Captain Nathaniel Brown Palmer 

New York Into sections and gives the records of 
various clippers In each section. The Great Re- 
public, after she was rebuilt by Captain Palmer, as 
described In another chapter, held the honors for 
the passage from Sandy Hook to the Equator, hav- 
ing made the run in i6 days. The Samuel Russell 
made the shortest run from Cape St. Roque to 50° 
south latitude In the Atlantic In 16 days. The Young 
America made the record run from 50° south In the 
Atlantic to 50° south In the Pacific in 6 days. The 
Live Yankee and the Mary L. Sutton ran from 50° 
south to the Equator In the Pacific in 16 days, while 
the White Squall made the record from the Equator 
to San Francisco in 14 days. 

The White Squall (1,118 tons) was "very simi- 
lar In design and construction to the Samuel Russell 
and Oriental,'^ according to Captain Clark. 

If any ship had been able to equal the record 
over each of the sections (allowing two days for 
the run from the Equator to Cape St. Roque), she 
might have made the passage from Sandy Hook to 
San Francisco In less than 70 days. 

The Russell endured the strains of hard driving 
until 1870, when she was wrecked in Caspar Strait. 

The most famous of the clippers designed by 
Captain Palmer was the Oriental, which followed 
the Russell in 1849. I^ one respect she was the 
most famous of all the clipper fleet, for it was when 
she appeared in London after a record run from 
Canton that the British for the first time, freely 

Captain Nathaniel B. Palmer. 

The Captain and His Fleet 205 

and cordially acknowledged American supremacy In 
the long-haul trades, as they had previously acknowl- 
edged our lead on the North Atlantic. The Oriental 
was 185 feet long, 36 wide and 21 deep. She 
measured 1,003 tons and she cost $70,000. 

The Oriental sailed from New York bound for 
China on September 14, 1849, under the command 
of Captain Theodore D. Palmer, a younger brother 
of Captain Nat. That he was abundantly able to 
sustain the reputation of the Palmer family was 
apparent after he had made two voyages in the 
Oriental. For his first return from Canton was 
made in 81 days, or only four days more than the 
record short passage. Because of the speed of the 
ship, and because of the record of the designer as 
well as that of the captain, the Oriental was next 
chartered to carry tea from Canton to London.* 

On May i8th the ship sailed from New York for 
Hong Kong and arrived out In 81 days, breaking 
the record for the passage east. Then she took on 
a load of 1,600 tons of tea for London. No 
American ship had ever been chartered to carry tea 
from China to London. In fact, no Yankee clipper 
of any size had appeared in any English port, 
though, as Lindsay notes in his history, the records 
of the clippers were as well known In London as 
In New York. Young Captain Theo. Palmer knew 
very well how the seafaring population of the 

*The ship was loaded by Russell & Co., of whom Captain R. B. 
Forbes, of Boston, was then the head. 

2o6 Captain Nathaniel Brown Palmer 

British capital would receive him if he were able 
to make a record passage, and he realized that he 
had other reasons for driving his ship to the utmost 
limit. In fact, he felt that the honor of the Ameri- 
can merchant service was, in a very real sense, in 
his keeping. But while he thus had every induce- 
ment for vigilance and persistence he must have felt 
a sinking of hope when he was ready to depart, for 
an adverse change in the monsoon occurred before 
the ship was loaded. 

Monsoon is the name given to the prevailing 
winds along the south and east coasts of Asia, and 
more especially the winds that prevail on the Indian 
Ocean at certain seasons. 

"From October to April," says the Cyclopedia of 
Commerce, *'a gentle, dry, northeast breeze pre- 
vails." It was against this gentle breeze that Cap- 
tain John Land sailed the Rainbow in her second 
passage to Canton. "From April till October," con- 
tinues the Cyclopedia, "a violent southwest wind 
blows, accompanied with rain." 

Captain Palmer in his effort to make a notable 
passage from Canton to London was obliged to beat 
his way down the Asiatic coast and across the Indian 
Ocean against this ^'violent southwest wind." 

It was a race against time. All previous record- 
breaking passages from Canton had been made with 
studding-sails spread alow and aloft before the 
"gentle, dry, northeast breeze." The Oriental had 
to smash her way through adverse gales, but she 

The Captain and His Fleet 207 

won. When the British clipper Challenger^ in later 
years, made the passage in 113 days she was hailed 
as a superb sailer, and so she was; but the Oriental 
was driven to London in 97 days. 

As Meloney says in the story already quoted: 

"The Oriental was the first out-and-out clipper 
London ever saw. Photographs of her were 
printed; she became the subject of newspaper lead- 
ers adjuring Britishers to take a lesson from her 
or prepare to forsake the sea. . . > The Gov- 
ernment copied her lines while she lay in drydock. 
Afterwards the lines of other Yankee flyers were 
taken off similarly, but the Oriental was the first 
inspiration of British builders, who, though they 
were to launch many beautiful cracks, never suc- 
ceeded in producing one to vie with the American 
champions." (Italics not in original.) 

Captain Nathaniel Brown Palmer was in London 
when the Oriental arrived, and a letter he wrote 
about the matter, said that Captain Theodore was 
"a Lion" in that port. He also brought home a 
copy of the Illustrated London News, dated De- 
cember 21, 1850, which contained a picture of the 
Oriental, and the following : 

"The Ship Oriental. 
"Although many British ships have arrived at 
New York and Boston from China, since the altera- 
tion in the Navigation Laws, the first American 

2o8 Captain Nathaniel Brown Palmer 

ship (the Oriental) only arrived in the West 
India docks on the 3d instant. 

"The ship Oriental, of New York, Captain 
Palmer (above 1,000 tons), was built for the 
China trade : she sailed from New York on her 
first voyage, the 14th of September, 1849, ^^^ ^^' 
rived at Hong Kong by the Eastern Passage, Jan- 
uary I, 1850, being 109 days.' She discharged and 
took in a full cargo for New York, sailed 30th 
January, and arrived in New York April 21st, mak- 
ing eighty-one days' passage; discharged and took 
in full cargo, and sailed May i8th for Hong Kong; 
arrived August 8th, making eighty-one days' pas- 
sage : discharged and took in full cargo and sailed 
for London, August 28th; beat down the China sea 
against the S. W. monsoon in twenty-one days to 
Anjer, and arrived off Scilly in ninety-one days, and 
into West India dock in ninety-seven days. A period 
of fourteen months and nineteen days has elapsed 
since she sailed on her first voyage from New York, 
since which time she has sailed 67,000 miles, and 
is now chartered to sail again for Canton, on loth 
January, 185 1. The above facts are taken from the 
log-book, by permission of Capt. T. D. Palmer, by 
M. J. Skiller of Wapping. 

*'We should add that the Oriental brings about 
1,600 tons of tea at £6 per ton, whilst all the ships 
loading at Whampoa at the same time only got 
£3 I OS. The bulk of her cargo is consigned to three 

The Captain and His Fleet 209 

firms of the highest eminence, whose Correspondents 
av^alled themselves of the opportunity even at such a 
high rate of freight, the Oriental being known 
for her fast sailing qualities, which she fully verified. 

"This Is a severe lesson to our ship owners, and 
will show them that the British merchants abroad 
are still ready to pay high freights for superior ships. 

"The main dimensions of the Oriental are; 
Length, 183 feet; beam, 2>^ feet; hold, 21 feet; poop 
deck, 45 feet; topgallant forecastle, 30 feet." 

Lindsay, the English author of a "History of 
Merchant Shipping," necessarily gave considerable 
attention to the American clippers In the China trade. 
He says that beginning In 1845 "various vessels 
were despatched from New York and Boston to 
Whampoa [Canton's port] which surpassed ours 
in speed, having low hulls, great beam, very fine 
lines and with yards so square as to spread a far 
larger amount of canvas in proportion to their 
tonnage than any vessels hitherto afloat." 

The names of the clippers which had especially 
attracted his attention were given (Vol. Ill, p. 292), 
in the following paragraph: 

"There is no doubt that at this period there were 
few ships afloat which could rival In speed the 
Oriental, Challenge, Sea JVitch, Flying Cloud and 
various similar vessels the Americans had sent forth 
to compete with us In the trade from China." 

2IO Captain Nathaniel Brown Palmer 

In describing the effect of the Oriental upon the 
people of London Captain Clark's "Clipper Ship 

Era" says: 

"Throngs of people visited the West India Docks 
to look at the Oriental. They certainly saw a beau- 
tiful ship ; every line of her long, black hull indicated 
power and speed; her tall, raking masts and skysail 
yards towered above the spars of the shipping in 
the docks ; her white cotton sails were neatly furled 
under bunt, quarter, and yardarm gaskets; while 
her topmast, topgallant and royal studdingsail 
booms and long, heavy lower studdingsail booms 
swung in along her rails, gave an idea of the enor- 
mous spread of canvas held in reserve for light 
and moderate leading winds; her blocks, standing 
and running rigging were neatly fitted to stand great 
stress and strain, but with no unnecessary top-ham- 
per or weight aloft. On deck everything was for 
use. The spare spars, scraped bright and varnished, 
were neatly lashed along the water ways; the inner 
side of the bulwarks, the rails and the deck houses 
were painted pure white; the hatch coamings, sky- 
lights, pin-rails, and companions were of Spanish 
mahogany; the narrow planks of her clear-pine deck, 
with the gratings and ladders, were scrubbed and 
holystoned to the whiteness of cream; the brass cap- 
stan heads, bells, belaying pins, gangway stanchions, 
and brass work about the wheel, binnacle and sky- 
lights were of glittering brightness. Throughout 

The Captain and His Fleet 211 

she was a triumph of the shipwright's and seaman's 
toil and skill. 

''No ship like the Oriental had ever been seen in 
England, and the, ship owners of London were con- 
strained to admit that they had nothing to compare 
with her in speed, beauty of model, rig, or construc- 
tion. It is not too much to say that the arrival of 
this vessel in London with her cargo of tea in this 
crisis of 1850, aroused almost as much apprehen- 
sion and excitement in Great Britain as was created 
by the memorable Tea Party held in Boston in 

The London Times is quoted as follows: 

"We must run a race with our gigantic and un- 
shackled rival. We must set our long-practised 
skill, our steady industry and our dogged determina- 
tion against his youth, ingenuity and ardor. It is 
a father who races with his son. A fell necessity 
constrains us and we must not be beat. Let our 
ship-builders and employers take warning in time." 

The Yankee ship of the sail was at last the swag- 
gering lord of all the Seven Seas, and it was a ship 
designed by Captain Palmer that compelled this 
final recognition of American ability. The captain 
had come late to the work of building up the reputa- 
tion of the Liverpool packet fleet, but he led all 
others in spreading the fame of the clippers in the 

212 Captain Nathaniel Brown Palmer 

home of Britannia, the one-time (also the modern) 
mistress of the seas. 

The next ship built after the Oriental to the 
captain's designs was named for him — the TV. B. 
Palmer. She was one of the largest of his clippers — 
214 feet long by 39 broad and 22 deep. She meas- 
ured 1,490 tons. Captain Clark wrote as follows 
regarding this ship : 

*'The N. B. Palmer was perhaps the most famous 
ship built in the Westervelt yard. In China she 
was known as 'the Yacht,' and with her nettings 
in the tops, brass guns, gold stripe and her lavish 
entertainments on the Fouth of July and Washing- 
ton's Birthday, she well deserved the title. . . . 
A full rigged model of the A^. B. Palmer was ex- 
hibited at the Crystal Palace, London, in 185 1, and 
attracted much attention as a fine example of the 
American clipper type." 

Captain Charles P. Low, who commanded this 
ship for several years, wrote as follows regarding 
her launching: 

"Some time in March, 185 1, the ship was ready 
for launching; she had all her spars aloft, royal 
and skysail yards crossed, and ... no ballast but 
her chain cables in her hold. ... A finer, hand- 
somer ship never was built. . . . Captain Palmer, 
to my disgust, put me in charge of a steam tug, 
with a large number of young girls and men and 
women of his acquaintance, to go and see the launch- 

The Captain and His Fleet 213 

ing from the water. I wanted to be launched in the 
ship. However, I had a jolly crowd to take care of, 
and we had a fine lunch, champagne and cigars, on 
board, and a better view of the launching than they 
had on shore. It was a splendid sight to see that 
huge craft slide down the ways. . . . After it was 
over ... I went up to the ship yard and found 
the ship alongside the wharf, leaking like a sieve, 
and Captain Palmer in no good humor." 

It was then too late to put her in drydock to ex- 
amine her for the leak and so men were hired 
to pump her out during the night. Next day it was 
learned that an inch and a quarter treenail had been 
left out below the water line, "and a whole lot of 
water can be forced through such a hole." 

The ship sailed for San Francisco on May 6, 185 1, 
and arrived out without special incident in 107 days. 
A pilot took her in and anchored her three miles 
from her wharf. Low rowed ashore and met the 
owners' agent, "a Nantucket man and a regular 
driver," who "wanted to know why I had not 
brought the ship up near the wharf." 

"The pilot refused to bring her any nearer," was 
the reply. 

"The ship must come up to the wharf." 

"If she must she must." 

Thereupon Captain Low went back to the ship 
where the pilot refused once more to take her 
to the wharf — why, is not told. So Low called all 

214 Captain Nathaniel Brown Palmer 

hands and set all plain sail to skysails. The wind 
was light abeam. "We got under way and went 
along finely. I knew that sails would stop a ship as 
well as send her ahead and I kept every stitch of 
canvas on her. ... As soon as I got near enough I 
backed the main yard and went along side so easily 
that there was hardly a jar. ... A great crowd 
on the wharf cheered me most heartily." 

The Palmer sailed from San Francisco to Canton 
in ballast, carrying 75 Chinese bodies as freight at 
$75 per body. Her passage from Canton to New 
York was made in 84 days. In her next voyage 
the Palmer made her best records for speed. Be- 
ginning on the third day out of New York she 
covered 396 miles in twenty-four hours. On July i, 
1852, she overhauled the celebrated Flying Cloud 
that had sailed ten days ahead of her. The Flying 
Cloud eventually beat her to San Francisco but she 
left San Francisco ten days after the Flying Cloud 
and beat her to China. And she beat the Flying 
Cloud from Canton to New York. 

In April, 1854, the Palmer loaded whale oil at 
Honolulu for New York and sailed on the 23d. She 
crossed the line in six days and rounded the Horn 
in thirty-eight "with skysails and royal studdingsails 
set. In 57 days we crossed the line in the Atlantic, 
a splendid passage. We were ten days ahead of the 
famous Sovereign of the SeasJ* 

This is not to claim that the A^. B. Palmer was 

The Captain and His Fleet 215 

a swifter ship than either the Flying Cloud or the 
Sovereign of the Seas, but it Is to say with emphasis 
that she was of their class — one of the swiftest of 
the clippers.* 

Captain Low was one of the few captains of the 
day who carried their wives. Mrs. Low was a 
woman of remarkable beauty and whenever the ship 
was in port the cabin was a much-sought social center. 

The Palmer was eventually sold In Europe. 

The years 1 850-1 851 were memorable In the 
annals of Captain Palmer's life because of the build- 
ing of another notable clipper, named the Contest, 
This ship measured 1,098 tons and for her size 
she was a splendid racer. Her record in the run 
from New York to San Francisco was 97 days, 
the same as that of the Sea Witch. In the return 
run to New York she sailed in a race with the 
Northern Light, which was bound for Boston. 

The Contest covered the 16,000 miles in 80 days, 
but the Northern Light arrived at her destination 
in 78 days and 5 hours. 

The Contest was one of the beautiful Yankee 
clippers captured by Captain Raphael Semmes, of 
the Confederate cruiser Alabama. The ship was 
burned off Batavia, while on her way from Yoko- 

* Mr. J. Murray Forbes, of Boston, is probably the only man 
now living who sailed in the A^. B. Palmer. In 1863 he crossed 
from San Francisco to Canton in her, and passed through a typhoon 
that carried away some top hamper, but demonstrated that she was 
an excellent sea boat. 

2i6 Captain Nathaniel Brown Palmer 

hama to New York, on November ii, 1863. 
Semmes described the capture and destruction of 
the ship in his "Service Afloat" as follows: 

"It was now about two o'clock A. M., and the 
Alabama getting up her anchor, steamed out into 
the China Sea, by the light of the burning ship. We 
had thus lighted a bonfire at either end of the re- 
nowned old Strait of Sunda. After having thus ad- 
vertised our presence in this passage, it was useless 
to remain in it longer. Ships approaching it would 
take the alarm, and seek some other outlet into the 
Indian Ocean. Most of the ships coming down 
the China Sea, with a view of passing out at the 
Strait of Sunda, come through the Caspar Strait. 
I resolved now to steam in the direction of this 
latter strait, and forestall such as might happen 
to be on their way. By daylight we had steamed 
the coast of Sumatra and Java out of sight, and 
soon afterward we made the little island called the 
North Watcher, looking, indeed, as its name implied, 
like a lone sentinel posted on the wayside. We had 
lost the beautiful blue waters of the Indian Ocean, 
with Its almost unfathomable depths and entered 
upon a sea whose waters were of a whitish green, 
with an average depth of no more than about twenty 
fathoms. Finding that I should be up with Caspar 
Strait sometime during the night, If I continued 
under steam, and preferring to delay my arrival 
until daylight the next morning, I let my steam go 

The Captain and His Fleet 217 

down, and put my ship under sail, to take it more 

"We were about to lift the propeller out of the 
water, when the cry of 'sail ho' came from the 
vigilant look-out at the mast-head. We at once 
discontinued the operation, not knowing but we 
might have occasion to use steam. As the stranger 
was standing in our direction, we soon raised her 
from the deck, and as my glass developed, first one, 
and then another of her features, it was evident that 
here was another clippership at hand. She had the 
well-known tall, raking masts, square yards, and 
white canvas. She was on a wind, with everything 
set, from courses to skysails, and was ploughing her 
way through the gently ruffled sea, with the rapidity, 
and at the same time, the grace of a swan. We 
made her a point or two on our lee bow, and not 
to excite her suspicion we kept away for her, so 
gradually, that she could scarcely perceive the al- 
teration in our course. We hoisted at the same 
time the United States colors. When we were 
within about four miles of the chase, she responded 
by showing us the same colors. Feeling now quite 
sure of her, we fired a gun, hauled down the enemy's, 
and threw our own to the breeze. (We were now 
wearing that splendid white flag, with its cross and 
stars, which was so great an improvement upon 
the old one.) So far from obeying the command 
of our gun, the gallant ship kept off a point or two — 
probably her best point of sailing — gave herself 

2i8 Captain Nathaniel Brown Palmer 

topgallant and topmast studding-sail, and away she 
went ! 

"I had been a little premature in my eagerness 
to clutch so beautiful a prize. She was not as yet 
under my guns, and it was soon evident that she 
would give me trouble before I could overhaul her. 
The breeze was tolerably fresh, but not stiff. We 
made sail at once in chase. Our steam had been 
permitted to go down, as the reader has seen; and 
as yet we had not much more than enough to turn 
the propeller. The chase was evidently gaining on 
us. It was some fifteen or twenty minutes before 
the engineer had a head of steam on. We now 
gave the ship all steam, and trimmed the sails to 
the best possible advantage. Still the fugitive ship 
retained her distance from us, if she didn't increase 
it. It was the first time the Alabama had appeared 
dull. She was under both sail and steam, and yet 
here was a ship threatening to run away from her. 
She must surely be out of trim. I tried, therefore, 
the effect of getting my crew aft on the quarter- 
deck, and shifting aft some of the forward guns. 
This helped us visibly, and the ship sprang forward 
with increased speed. We were now at least hold- 
ing our own, but it was impossible to say, as yet, 
whether we were gaining an inch. If the breeze 
had freshened, the chase would have run from 
us beyond all question. I watched the signs of the 
weather anxiously. It was between nine and ten 
o'clock A. M. Fortunately, as the sun gained power, 

The Captain and His Fleet 219 

and drove away the mists of the morning, the breeze 
began to decline ! Now came the triumph of steam. 
When we had come within long range, I threw the 
spray over the quarter-deck of the chase, with a 
rifle-shot from my bow-chaser. Still she kept on, 
and it was not until all hope was evidently lost, that 
the proud clipper-ship, which had been beaten by 
the failure of the wind, rather than the speed of 
the Alabama, shortened sail and hove to. 

"When the captain was brought on board, I con- 
gratulated him on the skilful handling of his ship, 
and expressed my admiration of her fine qualities. 
He told me that she was one of the most famous 
clipper-ships out of New York. She was the Con- 
test, from Yokohama, in Japan, bound to New York. 
She was light, and in fine sailing trim, having only 
a partial cargo on board. There being no attempt 
to cover the cargo, consisting mostly of light Jap- 
anese goods, lacker-ware, and curiosities, I con- 
demned both ship and cargo. I was sorry to be 
obliged to burn this beautiful ship, and regretted 
much that I had not an armament for her, that I 
might commission her as a cruiser. Both ships now 
anchored in an open sea, with no land visible, in 
fourteen fathoms of water, whilst the crew was 
being removed from the prize, and the necessary 
preparations made for burning. It was after night- 
fall before these were all completed, and the torch 
applied. We hove up our anchor, and made sail 
by the light of the burning ship. Having now burned 

220 Captain Nathaniel Brown Pahner 

a ship off Caspar Strait, I turned my ship's head 
to the eastward, with the intention of taking the 
Carimata Strait." 

Semmes valued the prize at $122,815. The 
American claim before the Geneva Board of x\rbi- 
tration (Vol. Ill of the Reports, p. 348) was 
$158,465.97. In May, 1876, A. A. Low, as at- 
torney for the owners, collected $66,994.96, "being 
the amount due" from the sum awarded to the 
United States for the Alabama claims, so-called. 
From this sum commissions and attorney's fees were 
deducted so that the owners actually received only 
$47,465.75, of which Captain Palmer's share was 
$5,933.22. He was the owner of four shares — 
thirty-seconds. The Contest cost $95,000 and was 
the most expensive clipper that Captain Palmer had 
built. She was nevertheless a highly profitable ship 
during her twelve years afloat. Her first cargo 
(May, 1 851) yielded $48,000 freight. 

Of the David Brown, the largest of Captain 
Palmer's designs (1,715 tons), it may be noted that 
she made the New York-San Francisco run during 
1854, in 98 days. Two years later she made it in 
103 days. In Clark's list of twenty-six clippers that 
completed this run in less than no days the David 
Brown stands fifth, the Sea Witch seventh, the 
Contest eighth. The Comet, with the record of 76 
days for the eastward run stands twenty-first in this 

The Captain and His Fleet 221 

In order to give an idea of the speed of the really 
short passages among the average of the whole 
American fleet engaged in the trade, it should be 
noted that (Hunt's Merchants' Magazine^ Vol. 28, 
p. 623), only twelve vessels out of 161 made the 
passage from the East to San Francisco in less than 
no days during 1852. Among these only two were 
at sea less than 100 days. The Sword Fish required 
92 days and the Flying Fish, 98. On the other hand, 
by way of contrast, twelve vessels required more 
than 200 days, among which the Alesto, from Bos- 
ton, was on the way 295 days, and the John Jay, 
from New York, 270. The average of all arrivals, 
month by month, varied from 137.5 <^^ys i" April 
to 161 days in November. As the total number 
of arrivals reported was 161, only a little more than 
7% of the vessels covered the route in less than no 
days while only 1.2% arrived in less than 100 days. 



THAT the swift passages of the ship Natchez 
should have been included in all magazine 
stories of the Yankee clippers is one of the 
more interesting facts in the history of the clipper 
era; for the Natchez was in all respects a type 
the very reverse of the clippers. But of all the 
stories ever written about the ships of the deep 
blue sea the one that should be of most interest to 
naval architects is that which tells how Captain 
"Bob" Waterman drove the Natchez from New 
York to Canton and back at the very beginning of the 
clipper era. Indeed, the story, being brief, might 
well be printed in bold type on cardboard and hung 
on the wall of every school room used for instruct- 
ing youths who would learn to design ships. 

The Natchez was built in 1831 by Isaac Webb, 
for the Collins-New York and New Orleans packet 
line. In those days the water in the passes of the 
Mississippi was always shallow and every vessel 
trading regularly to New Orleans was built with a 
broad beam and relatively little depth. Because no 
such a model was supposed to be speedy, the hulls 
were designed to carry the utmost amount of cargo 


Good Qualities of the Clippers Considered 223 

possible, and that is to say the ends were as blunt 
as any afloat; for cotton was the most important 
item in the cargo and the hold of the ship was 
crammed full of it, the final bales in each tier being 
forced in with big screws. 

In short, the Natchez had a model comparable 
with that of an Erie canal boat. One writer, speak- 
ing of her as she appeared in 1843, called her an 
"old flat-floored cotton wagon." Note that she was 
especially old, for the best of ships were reduced 
in grade for insurance purposes at the age of ten, 
and the Natchez was then twelve years old. 

However, in 1843 Howland & Aspinwall took 
over the Natchez, placed her under the command of 
Captain Robert H. Waterman and sent her to Can- 
ton for tea. Captain Bob, as he was called by a 
great host of friends, had made a splendid reputa- 
tion as a mate in the Black Ball packet line. He 
was now to have a remarkable career in the China 
trade. Taking the Natchez to Canton he loaded 
tea and brought it home in a passage of 94 days, 
a length of time which was exactly equaled, but 
never excelled by the celebrated clipper Flying 

In 1844, Captain Waterman took the Natchez 
by way of the west coast of South America to 
Hong Kong, where he arrived in the short time 
of 133 days of sailing. He then took on tea, and 
on January 15, 1845, 01* about the day when the 
clipper Rainbow was launched, he sailed for New 

224 Captain Nathaniel Brown Palmer 

York. He was off the Cape of Good Hope In 39 
days and on April 3, just 78 days from Canton, he 
arrived In New York. 

"This whole passage," says Clark, "was most re- 
markable, as the Natchez had established the reputa- 
tion of being an uncommonly slow ship." 

It Is Intimated In some of the magazine stories, 
as said, that Howland & Asplnwall built their second 
China clipper, the Sea JVitch, because of the ad- 
mirable work of their first clipper, the Rainbow. 
The truth Is they built the Sea JVitch because of the 
marvelous work of Captain Waterman with the 
Natchez; but they built her to the plans of Griffiths 
because of the success of the Rainbow. In fact, when 
the sail plan of the Sea JVitch was drawn Griffiths 
consulted frequently with Captain Waterman. When 
building the Sea JVitch her owners argued that if 
Captain Waterman could bring the "old flat-floored 
cotton wagon" home In 78 days he could lower that 
record by something memorable with the new Grif- 
fiths clipper. 

And so he did by something most memorable — 
eventually. The Sea Witch sailed on her first voyage 
to China on December 23, 1846, and arrived at 
Hong Kong In 104 days, or twenty more than was 
required by the Houqua in her first voyage. She 
sailed from Canton for New York on July 25, 1847, 
and arrived In 81 days, or three more than had been 
required by the "old, flat-floored cotton wagon." 

However, a day of glory was to come with the 

Good Qualities of the Clippers Considered 225 

second voyage. The Sea Witch made the run out 
to Hong Kong In 105 days and then, on November 
7, 1847, sailed for New York on a passage never 
equaled either before or since. She was expected 
to lower the record of the Natchez to a memorable 
extent, and as said she did. She arrived in New 
York in 77 days. She lowered the record of the 
"old cotton wagon," in a race 14,000 miles long, 
by just one day. In two subsequent voyages she 
came home in 79 and 81 days respectively. She 
was thus unable to equal the record of the Natchez 
on these runs. 

Of course all four of her passages were marvelous 
examples of speed but in view of the Natchezes 
"well-earned reputation of being an uncommonly 
slow ship" is it unfair to suggest that the ability of 
Captain Waterman had quite as much to do with the 
speed record of the Sea Witch as did her model? 
Moreover, since the Rainbow never equaled the 
record of the Natchez, is it not manifest that the 
model of the Rainbow and the Sea Witch had much 
less influence upon the development of the clippers 
than modern writers have been disposed to assert? 

Because the record of the Natchez has never been 
equaled by any other Canton trader than the Sea 
Witch, and because it was surpassed by the run of 
this extremely sharp ship by only one day, the in- 
fluence of the shape of a hull upon speed may well 
have consideration here. What shape of hull is 
best adapted for speedy passages between ports that 

226 Captain Nathaniel Brown Palmer 

are far apart? Griffiths's whole theory of shape 
was expressed in his description of the Lightning 
{Nautical Magazine, Vol. II, p. 9), already quoted. 

"Very great stability; acute extremities; full, 
short midship body; comparatively small deadrise, 
and the longest end forward, are points in the ex- 
cellence of this ship." 

By acute extremities he meant the use of hollow 
water lines and his expression "the longest end for- 
ward" indicated that the greatest breadth of beam 
was placed abaft the midlength section. 

Were the hollow water lines as advantageous as 
Griffiths, Steers and McKay supposed they were? 
Evidently McKay came to have doubt in the matter 
because he gave the Lightning very deep hollows, 
but the bows of the Great Republic, the pride of 
his life, "were wedge like, being slightly concave 
below water and convex above, with much sameness 
in shape," to quote the description written by 
Griffiths in the Nautical Magazine. 

More important than the views of McKay in this 
matter, however, is the modern practice In modeling 
hulls for speed only. The yacht America had hollow 
waterlines, but the modern defenders of her famous 
cup, beginning with the Vigilant, have all had what 
has been called spoon-shaped bows. The hollow 
waterline was abandoned as a detriment to speed. 

As to the location of the greatest breadth of 

Good Qualities of the Clippers Considered 227 

beam — whether forward or abaft the midlength sec- 
tion — an inspection of the records of the swiftest 
American ships shows that some "with the longest 
end forward," like the Lightning, have been ex- 
ceedingly swift and some like the Liverpool packet 
Dreadnought, have had "the longest end" aft. The 
Dreadnoughts widest section was three feet for- 
ward of the beam; the Lightning^ s eight feet abaft. 

This Is not to argue that one model Is as good 
as another. What we need to learn Is the features 
of the clippers which gave them great speed, and 
but little inquiry Is needed to show that the relative 
dimensions were of much more importance than any 
peculiarity of shape. 

An examination of the Palmer hulls Is interesting 
in connection with this discussion. The Houqua 
was 132 feet long by 32 wide and 17 deep. She 
was a little more than four times as long as she 
was broad. The Oriental was 185 feet long by 36 
broad and 21 deep. She was therefore five times 
as long as she was broad. When designing the 
Houqua the captain was venturing into a new field 
and he was therefore conservative In his model. The 
relation of length to beam was that found in some 
older cargo ships. Later experience led him to make 
his models relatively longer. 

An examination of the known proportions of the 
famous clippers shows that most of them were 
around five times as long as they were broad. Some 
were longer. The Flying Cloud and the Lightning 

2 28 Captain Nathaniel Brown Palmer 

were about five and a half times as long as they 
were broad, the Sovereign of the Seas was nearly 
six times, and the Great Republic was more than 
six times as long as she was broad. The Sea TVitch^ 
the Oriental, the Lightning, were swift because, first 
of all, their dimensions were well proportioned. 

In this feature the clipper models were a distinct 
departure from previous models. Dana's "Seaman's 
Friend" describes the Damascus built at Boston in 
1839. She was 4.6 times as long as she was broad. 
The Rajah was of about the same proportions. Two 
British men-o'-war described were still wider. One 
was but 3.2 times as long as she was broad and the 
other 3.13. 

A relatively long hull enabled the designer to give 
his model long wedges at the bow and stern, and 
every backwoodsman knows that a long wedge is 
easier to drive than a short one. 

It may be noted that the Houqua was relatively 
shallow; she was a "skimming dish!" Her speed 
was due to this feature, one may suppose, for a shoal 
depth makes for speed, as the America's cup races 
have proved. 

Undoubtedly the most important feature of the 
clipper was her sail plan. The masts and yards were 
relatively enormous. Large sails meant great 
power, but it was not alone in spreading much can- 
vas to storm winds that the clippers exceeded all 
other ships. For the lofty spreads of light canvas 
— skysails and royal studdingsails — caught many a 

Good Qualities of the Clippers Considered 229 

vagrant breeze and carried the clippers swiftly across 
the doldrums between trade-winds areas when the 
ordinary ships lay rolling idly for weeks at a stretch. 

The Damascus, mentioned above, was 32 feet 
wide. Her main yard was 60 feet long — less than 
twice her width. The Stacji Hound was 40 feet wide 
and carried a main yard 86 feet long. The Great 
Republic was 53 feet wide and was originally pro- 
vided with a main yard 120 feet long. 

Furthermore the clippers carried sails which were 
proportioned to the masts in such a way as to give 
a balance; with all plain sail set the ship would 
"steer herself," as the sailors used to say. It was 
because the canvas on the TV. B. Palmer was per- 
fectly balanced, fore and aft, that Captain Low was 
able to take her to her wharf at San Francisco under 
canvas when the pilot refused to do so. 

Perhaps the feature of Captain Palmer's clippers 
which made the strongest appeal to the owners of 
the day was their strength. When designing a ship 
for speed the size of the timbers used in the framing 
had to be adjusted to suit the strains on the hull. 
The rock maple keel, the white-oak ribs and the 
long-leaf pine beams, were all heavy and expensive. 
The builders were tempted to scamp the size of all 
these timbers in order to save both weight and 
money, and many yielded to the temptation. Hav- 
ing been built with scamped timbers some ships de- 
signed as clippers were hogged — their backs were 
broken — when they were launched. The hulls of 

230 Captain Nathaniel Brown Palmer 

others were drawn out of shape by the pressure of 
the waves when they were driven hard against a 
gale. The tremendous pressure of the masts on the 
keel, when a ship was straining under a press of 
canvas, sometimes drove the keel down until the 
garboard strake seams were opened, creating leaks 
which spoiled the cargo and even sank the ship. The 
pull of the shrouds sometimes drew the bolts which 
held the lower fittings of the shrouds to the sides 
of the hull and sometimes opened the seams on the 
sides. The same strain frequently wrecked the too- 
slender masts and yards. 

The experience of the Houqua during a cyclone 
which overtook her on the Indian Ocean, soon after 
midnight on January i6, 1848, shows at least that 
she was built to endure the worst. The wind was 
so powerful that within seven hours after it came, 
all furled as well as all reefed sails had been blown 
in small bits from the yards and spanker boom. Not 
a rag was left. The pressure of the wind on the bare 
jibboom not only broke that spar off in the bowsprit 
cap, but It carried away the weather cathead to which 
the jib and flying jib guys were set up. All three 
topgallant masts followed. At 9 In the forenoon 
the ship entered the quiet area In the centre of the 
cyclone and the crew cleared away the wreckage 
aloft. But at noon the wind came again with such 
force that It was impossible to stand up on deck and 
all hands gathered at the main rigging save only 

Good Qualities of the Clippers Considered 231 

the man who was at the wheel. The barometer 
stood at 27.5. 

At 4 P. M. the crew saw an almost solid mass of 
spoondrift coming with the wind. It was about 30 
feet high, and when it struck the ship it formed, 
for a moment, an arch over the deck beneath which 
the mainmast was visible though the top was in- 
visible. With that the Houqua turned over until 
her tops were in the water alee and the deck was 

Captain Low, who was in command, fell into the 
sea, but he caught a flying rope and climbed up to 
the main pin rail. There, by motions, he directed 
the crew to cut away the main rigging while the man 
from the wheel, who had escaped to the mizzen rig- 
ging, cut the shroud lanyards there. The masts at 
once went overboard and the ship righted. Mean- 
time, of course, the deck had been swept clean and 
so much water had poured down the cabin and the 
forecastle scuttles that the hull was half full. 

But when the wind had moderated and the crew 
had pumped the water out they found the hull as 
tight and sound as ever, and she sailed 3>500 miles 
under a jury rig to Hong Kong. It was after this 
tremendous strain that she made her record pas- 
sage from Shanghai to New York. 

The final test of a design for speed was in the 
ability of the ship to endure all strains in a storm 

232 Captain Nathaniel Brown Palmer 

Perhaps the influence of size upon speed has not 
been sufficiently considered in the clipper records. 
All yacht clubs have rules under which the large 
yachts give time allowances to small ones, but even 
with the best of these rules the large yacht has yet 
an advantage. A race between a seventy-foot chal- 
lenger for the America's cup and a ninety-foot 
defender is simply unthinkable. But the record of 
the Samuel Russell, of 940 tons, is compared with 
that of the Sovereign of the Seas, measuring 2,421 

Confessedly when the peculiarities of the clippers 
are considered in the light of present-day knowledge 
it is manifest that naval architecture was not then 
an exact science, and it is not an exact science even 
now. Naval architects make calculations and draw 
plans for each ship. Then they build a six-foot 
model which they tow to and fro in a big tank built 
for the purpose, and measure the strain on the tow 
line with care. Next they begin to scrape away the 
underwater body of the model, here and there, to 
learn what alteration of shape is needed to reduce 
the strain — to increase the speed, in other words. 
We are yet designing ships by the rule-o'-thumb. 

If the records of the Palmer clippers are consid- 
ered all together it appears that each led to the 
building of another because all were profitable; and 
all became noted, not through the use of any one 
peculiar feature of build or outfit, but as a result 
of continuous good work. Every passage was made 

Good Qualities of the Clippers Considered 233 

at a satisfactory speed and the cargoes were de- 
livered in good order. So long as they were in 
service it was said of them all, except the Houqua, 
that they "did not cost the underwriters a cent." 

The all-around efficiency of these ships should be 
emphasized in any story of the clipper era, because 
something more than a swift passage or two was 
needed to induce the ship merchants everywhere 
alongshore to undertake the building of "fast ves- 
sels for foreign trade," to use Griffiths's words. 
Something more was needed, that is to say, to de- 
velop the "clipper era." Donald McKay did not 
get his order to build the Stag Hound (the first clip- 
per built in Boston) until 1850 — until four years 
after the Rainbow had made her second voyage to 
Canton, and two years after the Sea Witch, "the 
swiftest clipper of her day," had broken the record 
of the "old cotton wagon," Natchez. Boston mer- 
chants knew all about these records, but they had 
not been convinced by the short passages that sharp- 
built ships were more desirable than others. Before 
they would order clippers it was necessary to show 
them that the sharp-built ships had records for mak- 
ing more money than the ships they already owned. 
The Palmer ships, built for the conservative firm 
of A. A. Low & Brothers, were furnishing just such 
records. They were the most profitable ships in 
the China trade — that is, they yielded the highest 
per cent of profit — though the Griffiths ships were 
only a little behind them; and it was just when these 

234 Captain Nathaniel Brown Palmer 

profits became fully known alongshore that the ex- 
traordinary demand for swift ships, to carry cargo 
to California at $1.50 per cubic foot of space, arose. 
The Boston merchants did not order clippers for 
fear of losing their tea trade, nor to pose as the 
owners of the swiftest ships in the China trade, but 
to get a share of a transportation business wherein 
the freight rate was $60 per measured ton. They 
did not intend "to enter the lists with Messrs. Aspin- 
wall, Captain N. B. Palmer, and others, and dispute 
for the palm of speed." They did not build as a 
sporting proposition even though thousands of dol- 
lars were wagered on the flyers when racing from 
port to port. The clipper era was developed by 
men who were animated solely by the motive now 
so often stigmatized as greed. 

Working as contemporaries but not as rivals. 
Captain Palmer and John Willis Griffiths developed 
two styles of sharp-built ships, both of which were 
great money makers. The era of the clipper was 
originated when Palmer and Griffiths built the 
Houqiia and the Rainbow. The climax was reached 
when the ships of Donald McKay and of Captain 
Palmer were earning gross sums in single passages 
equal to and commonly exceeding the original costs 
of the vessels. The business depression, which fol- 
lowed the California inflation, reduced the freight 
rate to $10 per ton in the New York-San Francisco 
trade, and bluff models were seen once more in the 

Good Qualities of the Clippers Considered 235 

Observe, now, that in his description of the Stag 
Hound, previously quoted, Griffiths wrote as fol- 

"The construction of this ship may be said to 
mark the introduction of the late clipper era at 

The era which was begun by the building of the 
Houqua and the Rainbow, 1 843-1 845, was called 
"the late clipper era" in 1855 — it was then passing 
away. Why it passed — why the splendid ships 
which had outsailed all others and made a reputa- 
tion as lasting as the history of the sea — failed 
at last, shall be told in another chapter. 


THE "great republic" REBUILT 

AN interesting little side light on the character 
of Captain Palmer is found in the list of 
names given to the ships he designed. The 
names Hoiiqua, Samuel Russell, Oriental and N. B. 
Palmer were such as conservative merchants were 
then in the habit of giving ships. The Boston names 
of the most famous clippers were Stag Hound, 
Flying Cloud, Sovereign of the Seas, Chariot of 
Fame and Great Republic — a somewhat boastful 

The last named ship was the largest of the clip- 
per fleet, and the largest ship of the sail ever built 
of wood. She is of special interest here because, 
through a vagary of fortune common enough in the 
annals of the sea, she came into the possession of 
Captain Palmer. 

To give the story of this ship the right focus it 
is necessary to recall first the trade between eastern 
United States ports and San Francisco, after the 
discovery (Jan. 24, 1848) of placer gold in Cali- 
fornia. When the news of this discovery was 
officially confirmed a vast host of people hastened 
with all possible speed to the new diggings. The 


The ''Great Republic'' Rebuilt 237 

congestion of people at San Francisco raised the 
prices of commodities to an extraordinary height. 
On July I, 1849, lumber worth $12 per thousand 
In New York sold for $500 In San Francisco. Eggs 
sold for $2 a dozen. Fowls were $4 each and all 
other commodity prices were comparable with these. 
The profits on a cargo of general merchandise 
shipped from New York to San Francisco, at that 
time, were so great that the demand for swift ships 
of the largest size exceeded any ever before known 
In the nation. This demand continued for several 
years, and sea capitalists built for the trade with all 
speed. In 1851 a large number of ships were 
launched which measured from 1,500 to 1,800 tons, 
or an average of 500 tons larger than the large ships 
of previous years. A year later several ships 
measuring above 2,000 tons were built with profit 
for the owners, the largest of these, the Sovereign 
of the Seas, measuring 2,421 tons. This ship was 
built by Donald McKay of Boston on his own ac- 
count, because no one was to be found who would 
invest in a vessel as large as she was. McKay's 
friends seriously warned him that bankruptcy would 
follow, but when she was put in commission she 
proved to be the most profitable ship of the whole 
clipper fleet of the day. 

It was the success of the Sovereign of the Seas 
along with the prevailing optimism in business 
circles — especially the prevailing optimism — that 
led, in 1853, to the building of the Great Republic. 

238 Captain Nathaniel Brown Palmer 

If certain characteristics of this ship be consid- 
ered it is seen that her name was appropriate; for 
she was in several respects like the American nation. 
First of all, she was thoroughly well framed and 
put together. Her backbone — the assemblage of 
timbers at her keel — was nine feet, ten inches deep, 
from the top of the riding keelson to the bottom 
of the shoe, and the breadth of this assemblage was 
commensurate with the depth. She had bilge keel- 
sons which were larger than the keels of many big 
clippers. The scarfs of the timbers were long, the 
coags big and numerous, the bolts, whether of cop- 
per or iron, were of unusual dimensions. Finally the 
frames were diagonally cross-braced with iron straps 
four inches wide and an inch thick. In her construc- 
tion she was as far superior to all sailing ships of 
that day as the fundamentals of the America^ 
nation were superior to those of all other nations. 

Then, while some critics, including Designer 
Griffiths, thought she lacked beauty, they all agreed 
that she was built for speed and carrying capacity. 
Her spread of canvas was in fact simply enormous, 
and in proportion far beyond the usual spread. 
Thus her main yard was 120 feet long to a breadth 
of hull of ^2 feet, or 14 feet more than the naval 
rule allowed in making the sail plan of swift frigates. 

Her bulk was especially comparable with that of 
the nation. She was 325 feet long on the upper 
deck, and that was 125 feet longer than the deck of 
the clipper Aurora, a vessel of the average size in 

The *'Great Republic** Rebuilt 239 

the trade during 1854. She measured 4,555 tons, 
and her capacity was 6,000 tons. She was of such 
immense size that neither owners nor agents could 
fill her; and a fanciful writer has compared the vast 
empty space in her hull to the wide vacant land 
spaces then existing in the nation. There was some- 
thing of the "spread-eagle" in the attitude of her 
designer, as there was in the attitude of all good 
Yankees in those days. 

When completed the Great Republic was brought 
to New York and partly loaded for Liverpool, 
where she was to be put into the trade to Australia. 
But just before she was ready to sail (December 26, 
1853) a fire which originated in a nearby warehouse 
set her on fire aloft, for that was the day of tarred 
rigging. The firemen flinched when asked to save 
her, her spars and upper deck were destroyed, and 
she was sunk at the pier. She was then abandoned 
to the underwriters (she had been insured for 
$400,000), and the underwriters in due course sold 
her at auction, "as is and where is." Captain 
Palmer bought her, as she lay on the bottom beside 
the pier, for A. A. Low & Brothers. To show his 
standing with this firm it may be told that none of 
the members knew what he was doing until he went 
to the office and announced the purchase. Mr. A. 
A. Low at once confirmed the transaction. The cap- 
tain took a sixteenth interest in the hulk. 

Of course the captain had bid her in at a low 
price. She was raised and towed to the shipyard 

240 Captain Nathaniel Brown Palmer 

of Sneeden & Whitlock, Greenpoint, where she was 
rebuilt as a razee, to use the naval term. She was 
rebuilt, without her original upper deck, at a total 
cost of $27,000. 

The original figurehead, by the way, was a beau- 
tifully-carved head of an eagle, covered with gold 
leaf. Captain Palmer saved it and took it to Ston- 
ington, where It may now be seen in the public 
library. The razee had no figurehead. 

In her new form the Great Republic was still much 
larger than any ship of the sail afloat, for she meas- 
ured 3,355 tons and had a capacity of something 
more than 4,000 tons. 

Reducing the depth of hold was only one of the 
alterations made in the Great Republic. Thus the 
new main yard was only 90 feet long as compared 
with the original, 120 feet long, a reduction of 25%. 
The masts were also shortened, of course. This 
was done to reduce the number of men required. 

A novelty in the outfit of the big ship was a steam 
engine installed on deck and connected with handy 
winches, fore and aft. American shipbuilders had 
led the world theretofore in adopting such labor- 
saving devices as blocks with roller bearings, im- 
proved windlasses and "patent" steering gear, but 
the use of steam to save human muscle was an 
improvement in advance of the day. The practical 
result of all the changes made by Captain Palmer 
in this rebuilt ship was a reduction in the number of 
men required from 100 to 50. 

The ''Great Republic'' Rebuilt 241 

On February 21, 1855, Captain Palmer sent the 
Great Republic to sea, bound for London, with 
3,000 tons of guano in her hold "for ballast." She 
ran to the coast of England in twelve days, and 
Admiral Preble, in his interesting account of this 
vessel, printed in the United States Service Maga- 
zine, recalls the fact that she sailed 412 miles in 24 
consecutive hours while on the way. If she was able 
to sail at that speed under a main yard 90 feet long, 
what might she have done if equally well handled 
under her original main yard 120 feet long? 

The ship was consigned to the London firm of 
W. S. Lindsay & Co., shipbrokers and merchants 
of the highest standing, the head of the firm being 
the historian whose work has been quoted herein. 
Referring to her (Vol. Ill, p. 359), Lindsay wrote: 

"She made the passage to Scilly Islands in thir- 
teen days, beating up the channel thence in three 
days to the Downs. But on her arrival in London 
. . . I found her much too large to be employed 
profitably in any of the ordinary channels of com- 
merce; and had not the French Government, then 
in want of transports for the Crimean War, been 
induced by the large space she afforded for the con- 
veyance of troops, to engage her for this purpose, 
she must have remained, long after her arrival, 

Lindsay & Co. wrote so discouragingly about the 
employment of the big ship that the owners sent 

242 Captain Nathaniel Brown Palmer 

Captain Palmer to London to see what he could do 
with her. Just how he managed the business is not 
now a matter of record, but the Nautical Magazine 
(Vol. II, p. 569) reported that the French Govern- 
ment had chartered her for use as a transport (as 
Lindsay also notes), to carry soldiers and supplies 
from French ports to the Crimea, where war pre- 
vailed. The price received by the owners was 
twenty shillings net per ton register per month. For 
his part of the task of securing this profitable char- 
ter the Lows gave Captain Palmer $2,500. 

In 1857 the Great Republic was sent from New 
York to San Francisco with a cargo that yielded, 
according to one report, a freight of $160,000. It 
was in her passage to the west that she made the 
record run between Sandy Hook and the Equator — 
16 days. She arrived at San Francisco in 92 days. 
As was noted at the time, she never had the luck 
to find a driving gale that lasted for any great length 
of time. Lieut. M. F. Maury, of the Washington 
Naval Observatory, whose wind charts were of such 
great value to seamen, said that if this ship had 
been able to sail over a route in the far south where 
the strong winds found by the Sovereign of the Seas 
prevail, she would have exceeded all records, even 
with her reduced sail area. 

During the Civil War she was in the employ of 
the Federal Government. In 1869 she was sold in 
Liverpool and Clark notes that she foundered "off 
Bermuda" in 1872. 



AS designed, the Great Republic was the most 
splendid wooden merchant ship ever built, 
even though too large for profit at that 
period. That an eager ambition to excel — that 
pride founded on previous achievement and buoyant 
optimism — should have produced such a ship was 
natural and perhaps inevitable. But if rightly seen 
the result was worth the cost. The patriot's blood 
is stirred as he reads the description of her huge 
hull, her extraordinary framing, and, above all, her 
tremendous spread of canvas; and he is glad that 
the enthusiasm needed for the production of a ship 
like her was found in an American builder. 

It is interesting to observe, too, that the conserva- 
tive Captain Palmer had the optimism to invest in 
this last and greatest ship of her class. He saw 
clearly that, as designed, she was much too large 
for the going cargoes, for he was careful, when re- 
building her, to provide for a great reduction in 
the number of her crew. When he substituted a 
90-foot main yard for one that had been 120 feet 
long, he calculated that while the ship would carry 
almost as much cargo as any two of the ordinary 


244 Captain Nathaniel Brown Painter 

clippers afloat she would require few more men in 
her crew than one of them. There was a solid 
foundation for his optimism. 

One can believe, too, that when he was rebuilding 
her he was animated by an unexpressed ambition. 
It would be a notable achievement to make a profit- 
able ship out of this magnificent monster. Perhaps, 
too, as he recalled his work in creating the first of 
the clippers, he dimly realized that the Great Re- 
public was the culminant, the predominant ship of 
the famous fleet, and that this feeling moved him to 
buy her at the auction. At any rate he was, in later 
years, honestly proud of having been a leader 
among clipper owners at the end, as well as at 
the beginning, of the wonderful era. 

In connection with the story of the Great Republic 
it is interesting to recall the fact that the English 
were also building a ship, in those days, which was 
much too large for the available traffic — the steam- 
ship Great Eastern — the keel of which was laid on 
May I, 1854. She and the Great Republic were 
contemporary exhibits of excessive optimism, but the 
British ship occupies a position in the history of the 
sea far different from that of the big clipper. For 
she was a sporadic growth in the evolution of a new 
and more efficient type where the American ship was 
a final specimen of a type doomed to disappear. 

The fact that the ship of the sail was to be re- 
placed in all trades by a new type is a matter of 
especial interest here, because of Captain Palmer^s 

Hail and Farewell 245 

connection with the contest between the two types. 
Accordingly, a brief consideration of the evolution 
of the deep-water steamship must be given. In 
1838 I. K. Brunei, chief engineer of the Great West- 
ern Railroad, in England, sent the steamship Great 
Western from Bristol to New York (April 7-23), 
and demonstrated that a steamship could earn a 
profit in the transatlantic trade; for this voyage 
yielded a profit and the ship continued to make profit- 
able voyages for years thereafter In spite of the 
opposition of another British line which received a 
substantial subsidy for carrying the mails. 

It Is Important to observe next that the early 
steamships were run in opposition to our packets 
and not to our clippers. The clippers were in the 
long-haul trade and made their whole magnificent 
career after the steamships had begun their contest 
for supremacy in the North Atlantic. The Houqua 
was launched nearly six years after the first voyage 
of the Great Western steamship was made. 

Note further that the steamships served the 
American packet ships precisely as the packets had 
served the preceding ships — they provided a more 
regular and dependable service. The American 
packets for a time made contracts with shippers by 
which they agreed to deliver cargo in Liverpool 
ahead of the steamships, under a penalty of a great 
reduction In the freight rate, but they could not 
make a similar contract for the passage to New 
York and succeed. The steamships could and did 

246 Captain Nathaniel Brown Palmer 

announce in advance the days on which they would 
depart and those on which they would arrive, 
whether east bound or west bound, and they made 
good the promise. So they rapidly secured the high- 
class freights and the passenger traffic. 

Efficiency won the contest and that is a statement 
which American ship owners need to keep in mind. 

When American ship owners saw the trend of the 
business, they sought to go into steam, but they failed 
for several substantial reasons. The British had 
had long experience in navigating the stormy waters 
of Europe with steamships. They had a well- 
developed iron business where America had none. 
The iron as well as the copper bolts with which the 
famous Yankee clippers were fastened, were im- 
ported; and when the Yankee built steamships he 
imported much of the iron work. Then, too, the 
Yankee was handicapped by the success he had had 
in building inland-water steamers, for he tried to 
use the kind of engines which had succeeded on the 
inland vessel, but found them unadapted for deep 

Worst of all, the Yankee continued to use wood 
for the hull while the British turned to iron, and he 
used paddle wheels while the British adopted the 
screw propeller. The critical period of the contest 
between American and British shipping on the North 
Atlantic came in 1850, when a line of iron packets, 
driven by the screw propeller, was established be- 
tween Philadelphia and Liverpool. From the build- 

Hail and Farewell 247 

ing of Palmer's packet ship Roscius to the rebuild- 
ing of the Great Republic there was absolutely no 
development, or say, no evolution in the ship of the 
sail. But the substitution of the screw for the 
paddle wheel, meantime, was a development amount- 
ing to a revolution; and in the meantime, too, each 
new steamship carried minor improvements in many 
features. The art of building ships of the sail had 
culminated; the art of building steamships was in its 
infancy; and yet these infant-class steamships were 
more efficient than any ship of the sail in the Liver- 
pool trade. The clipper era came after the superior 
efficiency of steam on the North Atlantic had been 
demonstrated; and with the further evolution of 
steam the proud and beautiful ship of the sail was 
speedily driven from all trades. 

The attitude of American ship designers and 
capitalists, among whom Captain Palmer was a 
leader, is very well set forth in the periodicals of 
the day. In the Nautical Magazine of August, 
1857, the editor considered the question, 'Which is 
the Best Material for Ship Building — Wood or 
Iron?" Rewrote: 

"Those who have tested both wood and Iron know 
wood to be the best. . . . The English shipbuilding 
iron Is unfit for building vessels. We know this from 
personal experience. ... In reference to the se- 
curity of the shaft In the sternpost, we do not hesi- 
tate to say . . . that we can furnish greater security 

248 Captain Nathaniel Brown Palmer 

... in a wooden vessel than our transatlantic 
friends can in an iron vessel as now built." 

In the editor's view the current talk about the 
superiority of iron was heard only because "English 
influence is endeavoring to destroy the value of our 
forests and to increase the value of her mines." 

In "A Cyclopedia of Commerce," issued by 
Harper & Brother in 1858, is the following on page 

"It is probable that in the end" the steamships 
"will engross the greater part of the coasting trade 
of most countries and of the trade between countries 
adjacent to each other. But the improved class of 
sailing ships have little to fear from the competition 
of steamers in the more distant branches of trade." 

In short, American shipping people could not see 
the trend of sea transportation. 

Captain Palmer's opinion of iron as a material for 
shipbuilding has been preserved in a record at 
Stonington, as follows: 

"When he was in Liverpool with the Siddons the 
English shipbuilders were discussing iron ships, and 
Captain Nat laughed at them. He looked at the 
iron plate and said he could fire a musket ball 
through it; that with an old gun he had he could sink 
any of their iron ships. A wager was instantly 
made that he could not make his words good. The 

Hail and Farewell 249 

iron plate was put in position and with an old 
musket he fired a ball through it." 

It was commonly believed in America that iron 
was unfit for shipbuilding because it was thus easily 
punctured. It was frequently said that if any acci- 
dent happened to an iron ship at sea she would drop 
from under the feet of the crew while they were 
crossing the deck to the lifeboats. The fact that 
the iron ship Great Britain had remained on the 
rocks on the coast of Ireland, all one winter, and was 
then hauled off and fully repaired at small expense, 
was ignored. 

The fact that Captain Palmer and others looked 
on without concern while the British were develop- 
ing their iron shipping seems, at first thought, aston- 
ishing and even astounding. But when this apathy 
is well considered it is understandable. It was due 
to the bent of mind naturally developed in the sailor 
of the sail. For the man who had designed, built, 
and launched such ships as the Houqua and the 
Samitel Russell, and had then driven them by fair 
winds and through foul gales to record achieve- 
ments, could look upon the slobbering, crashing, 
stinking steamship with no other feeling than dis- 
gust. The sailor of the sail was in his every fiber 
and instinct an artist. 

Nevertheless, Captain Palmer did try his hand at 
it. He bought an interest in one built for the Black 
Ball Line and took command of her on her first voy- 

250 Captain Nathaniel Brown Palmer 

age. He tried thus to adapt himself to the new 
system of transportation, but one trial was enough. 
On his return to New York he left the ship and 
soon after retired from active work at sea alto- 

With the rebuilding of the Great Republic the 
story of Captain Nathaniel Brown Palmer, in his 
work of giving American shipping a dominating 
influence on all seas, comes to an end. Nevertheless, 
a few brief sketches — pictures — of his life in retire- 
ment should prove of interest. He was one of the 
able seamen who established the New York Yacht 
Club, and while he lived he was active in promoting 
its interests. That he had an inborn love for sailing 
in small boats as well as merchant ships was shown 
during his second voyage to Canton in the Houqua, 
when his wife and a niece were with him. For he 
rigged one of the quarter boats with sails and then 
took his wife and niece, and any guest that hap- 
pened to come to the ship, for all-day exploring 
expeditions around the river, above and below 
Whampoa. Having given the best years of his 
business career to designing swift ships of the sail, 
he found no more congenial work for his hours of 
leisure than the designing, building and sailing of 
pleasure ships. It is remembered that he thus pro- 
duced seventeen different yachts. The famous 
schooner yacht Palmer was named for him. 

When sailing his yachts, whether in the races of 
the New York Yacht Club or in cruising along 
shore, he always carried a few of the boys of Ston- 

Hail and Farewell 251 

ington. Some who were thus favored recall now 
that he not only taught them the arts of handling 
canvas, but he provided for them experiences which 
cultivated such mental qualities as energy, endurance 
and persistence. 

Thus, it is related that when he sailed from Ston- 
ington for Saybrook, one day, with such a crew on 
board, the wind sagged just as he was entering the 
river, and the tide began to ebb. The yacht lost 
headway and then began to drift. Thereupon the 
boys were put in a yawl, with a line to the yacht, in 
order to tow her in ; and they were kept towing until 
they succeeded, although it took them nearly all 
night to do it. They thought they were "in hard 
luck" at the time, but later they were thankful for a 
lesson in persistence — as a record shows. 

All outdoor sports appealed to the captain, and 
he was especially fond of shooting. Having pro- 
vided his crew with wild fowl among the islands on 
the Antarctic coast, he renewed his youth by shoot- 
ing coots on Long Island Sound and ducks and geese 
on the Currituck Sound. For he was an active mem- 
ber of the Currituck Club, a famous organization of 
sportsmen in his day. 

Hale and hearty, gentle and kindly, and with an 
optimistic outlook on life which was founded upon 
a sincere faith in the Christian religion as taught 
by the Episcopal creed, he grew old slowly. Noth- 
ing ever deeply marred his life until he lost his wife 
in 1872, but he died at last of a broken heart. After 
the death of his wife he became devoted to a 

252 Captain Nathaniel Brown Palmer 

nephew, who had been named for him, the son of 
his brother Alexander. The boy became afflicted 
with tuberculosis and the captain made every pos- 
sible effort to save him. He and the boy traveled 
far in search of a climate where a cure might be 
effected, but all in vain. 

The last journey made was to China. When it 
was finally seen that no hope remained, the two went 
on board the City of Pekin, an American ship, at 
Hong Kong, May 15, 1877, hoping to reach home 
while the boy was yet alive. Though 78 years old, 
and worn with travel and worry, the captain was 
yet every inch a Viking lord of the sea. Captain 
Tanner, the ship's master, said later that he always 
felt as if he were a junior officer when in the dom- 
inating presence of the old clipper sailor. But the 
final and breaking strain of life was at hand, for 
the boy died when one day out from port — May 16. 

Throughout the voyage to San Francisco, there- 
after, the captain failed steadily though not visibly, 
for his will sustained him. On reaching port he 
wired the death of the boy to the father. Then he 
went to bed at his hotel and on June 21 he passed 
aw'ay, unafraid, to the haven of all who leave a 
record of good work well done. 

On July 15, with his coffin buried under great 
masses of flowers, his body was carried by a memor- 
able host of his friends to the family plot in the 
cemetery overlooking the sea at Stonington, and 
there it rests awaiting the Master^s call. 


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